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International Socialism, Autumn 1966


Peter Ibbotson

From Our Readers

On Education in Japan


From International Socialism, No.26, Autumn 1966, pp.17-18.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Despite the implication at the end of Nigel Harris’ brief review of R.P. Dore’s Education in Tokugawa Japan (IS 24), education is indeed the key to social change. It is the key to the existence of social class feelings; it is in many countries an instrument of social policy. In England and Wales an outstanding feature of education is the general absence of a clear statement of educational policy, although in other countries the role of education is clearly defined. In the USSR the aim of education is to train fully educated and conscious builders of communism [1] while in the USA education is equally consciously and frankly regarded as an instrument of social policy. [2]

In England on the other hand one has to look at the whole structure of the education system – and at its historical set-up too – in order to discover what the educational policy is. According to Clarke ‘Education must take as its main task the production of a socially determined type. Then the debate must centre upon the nature of the type, and particularly upon its ultimate destiny.’ [3] Any unbiased and detailed honest examination of education in England [4] clearly demonstrates that education in England is class-ridden and class-conscious. The general thesis emerges that ‘the aims of education in England, deduced from an examination of the educational system, are the perpetuation of class differences and the production of an intellectual and managerial elite from the schools outside the state system.’ [5] The class differences arise, of course, from the existence of not one system of education, but two systems: one for 95 per cent of the school population, one for the other five per cent. One is for those who cannot or will not buy education; one is for those who can afford to spend – after taxation – up to £700 a year (as at Millfield, Street) on their child’s education. One is provided by the State, i.e., by the taxpayers and ratepayers (the same people – providing the money out of different pockets), one by private enterprise which, in this matter of education, has behaved in characteristic predatory fashion in converting schools founded for the free education of the children of the common people (e.g., Harrow, Shrewsbury, Winchester, Blundell’s) into establishments providing expensive education for a highly selective minority with wealth as the mainspring of selection.

Demands for a change in educational policy today come mainly from those who want to see education fully democratised; who want to see a new social order founded on the 1944 Education Act; who want to see the class division caused by the two systems of education brought to an end; who believe, in short, that education is the key to social change. There is a small lunatic fringe whose demands for a change stem from a desire to make class-consciousness even more firm inside the classroom – they want to make access to secondary and further education even more difficult than it is for the able child whose parents are not overblessed with money. But their views are unrepresentative of any substantial body of organised opinion and can be discounted in any discussion of demands for a change. Those who want to see education more democratised base their demands on two grounds – educational and social. On social grounds they say that it is inimical to national unity and the maintenance of Britain’s position as a world power that we should continue to tolerate an educational set-up which trains an elite, not necessarily selected on ability to form that elite, to occupy ascriptive positions of power while the vast majority of the nation’s children are denied opportunity, to develop their varied talents and aptitudes to the full. The educational case rests on the 1944 Education Act according to which all children should be educated according to their age, ability and aptitudes – yet the present organisation of education in England denies realisation of that aim.

Class-consciousness derives from the present educational set-up. So does class stratification. When the Cross Commission, which reported in 1868, was examining the organisation of education in England it acknowledged the existence of social distinctions in schools and admitted that the disappearance of such distinctions would be beneficial; but made no proposals to further that disappearance. Indeed, on the contrary, the Commission proposed measures which tended to increase social stratification even more. Their reason was, in essence, that class distinctions were bad but to change them might also be bad! (An argument not dissimilar to that once put forward by the Labour Party [6] when it admitted and condemned the social and educational evils of private education yet proposed to do nothing to end it.) So, although today it would be true that a change in educational policy, in the direction of democratising it, would lead to a reduction in class-consciousness, it is equally true – as true as in 1868 – that it would be difficult to carry such changes into effect; unless, of course, we have a government inspired by socialist principles.

A radical change in policy would be needed. As long as there is private education, so long will there be class distinction in education, with all the attendant frustrations for the able child denied access to further education by the favoured treatment often accorded to wealthy well-connected dunderheads. The radical change would have to be the total abolition of private education; it must be made illegal. ‘I have never been able to understand why socialists have been so obsessed with the question of the grammar schools, and so indifferent to the much more glaring injustice of the independent schools’ wrote Anthony Crosland [7], but as Minister of Education his contribution has so far been the appointment of a commission to study, not how the independent schools can best be got rid of, but how they can best make a contribution to the national system of education.

From private education being made illegal, the detailed implications of which step are not here relevant, only good would come. There would no longer be, to adapt Disraeli, ‘two educations, between which there is no intercourse and no sympathy; which are ignorant of each other as if they were dwellers in different planets; which are formed by a different breeding, ordered by different manners, governed by different customs.’ Instead there would be one education; master and man, ruler and ruled, quality and commonalty, all as children would attend the same type of school, a State school, administered under the same regulations, having the same handicaps. [8] The Foreign Secretary, the ambassador, the humblest Foreign Office messenger – all would start life in a state school. Each would (subject only to the variations between local education authorities’ local provision, which a radical change in education policy and finance would ensure were ironed out) have the same opportunity of making his way in the world. In later life the messenger would not be able to blame his lack of personal advancement upon the fact that he went to Brick Lane Primary and Back Road Modern schools instead of to Pilgrims, Winchester and New College. He would have only his own shortcomings to blame. Personal responsibility would have a greater place in society.

Such a radical change in policy would not create a classless society, but insofar as education is the principle determinant of class-consciousness it would abolish class-consciousness based on criteria other than pure and realised ability. Consciousness of differences based on realisation of ability pure and simple is not class-consciousness at all. Class-consciousness is, in fact, quite the reverse – it is the consciousness of differences based on criteria other than ability. Attendance at a grammar school today confers social and occupational advantage; the more so does attendance at an independent school. But get rid of types of secondary school, and have all children attending the same type of secondary school, and class-conscious advantage will disappear. Ability alone will emerge as the criterion of advancement. An educational revolution is needed; is in fact overdue; but that it will lead to a social revolution is irrefutable. Particularly if at the same time a serious all-out atack is made on all aspects of social underprivilege, eg, housing and slum schools, which inhibit complete personal fulfilment in the educational process.



1. Y.N. Medinsky, Public Education in the USSR.

2. R.J. Havighurst, Education for Social Change, in Newton Edwards (ed.), Education in a Democracy.

3. F. Clarke, Education and Social Change.

4. See for example, P. Ibbotson in Labour Teacher, October 1957 and New Reasoner, October 1958.

5. P. Ibbotson, Labour Teacher, op. cit.

6. Labour Party, Learning to Live.

7. A. Crosland, The Future of Socialism.

8. State school teachers are rationed among local education authorities. Independent schools are not subject to teacher-rationing.

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