From Socialist Review, 8th Year No. 14, Mid-July 1958.
Republished in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 343–46.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The 1944 Education Act purported to give “equal educational opportunity” to all Britain’s children. Before that time there was a direct connection in nearly all cases between parents’ income and the acquirement of higher education. Now selection for higher education purports to be made according to native “ability” and this is supposed to cut across class differences and in this way open the door to all who would profit by higher education. The other side of the coin of selection, namely, rejection, is similarly supposed to give proportional weight to each class. Is this in fact, what happens? Let us trace the children’s course through their educational career to see whether or not it does. This article deals only with State schools, public schools having been adequately dealt with in the Socialist Review previously.
It is by now well established among educationalists that the ability to learn to read is far less closely connected with the mechanical mastering of sounds than with the general cultural background from which a child comes. Brian Simon, who wrote a damning criticism of intelligence testing in Intelligence Testing and the Comprehensive School, correctly says:
“If a child comes from a home where the parents often tell him stories, where they read to him and take the trouble to buy him suitable books, where they encourage him to paint, to draw, to write, and generally to express himself, then it is almost certain that by the age of six he will be talking fluently, reading well, and be generally interested in new activities. By contrast, a child who is denied these advantages by reason perhaps of the tired and harassed condition of his parents, because money is short, living conditions crowded, and because the parents never had the opportunity of much education themselves and so might not realise its value – such children may certainly develop initiative, independence and some skills the middle class child will not acquire, but these will not be in the field of learning to read and mastering the other academic skills that follow from it.”
Infant teachers are well aware of the discrepancy in academic achievement between children from what are commonly misnomered “good” and “bad” homes.
The differences found between children at the age of five tend to widen throughout their school career for two reasons:
This is brought about largely by the vicious, “junior leaving” examination (the 11-plus), to which most junior schools gear their whole curriculum. (They do this because the prestige of any junior school is generally measured by its success in getting children selected for grammar schools and for the public schools which grant a few free places to children who do particularly well.) The organization of the school for this purpose is generally done through “streaming” the children into A, B, C, etc., streams which diverge from the start, with the result that the longer a child is in a backward stream, the more difficult it is for him to catch up to a higher one.
The 11-plus examination itself, supposedly a pure test of ability to profit by different types of education (academic, technical or secondary modern where the emphasis is on manual and craft work) is far from being “above class” in any respect. It is impossible for it to be so. The test has had to be constructed, validated and standardized in the first place, using the teachers’ approximate grading of performance, which, as we have seen, is so largely conditioned by the children’s environment and also the middle class background and academic bias of the teacher himself. The test therefore tends to measure the skills readily acquired by middle class children in the academic field to the exclusion of any the average working class child may have acquired.
The working class child is therefore discriminated against in education right from the start. This unhappy picture has been well borne out in surveys of the class structure of grammar schools. Jean Floud’s excellent survey of schooling in South-West Hertfordshire and Middlesex, called Social Class and Educational Opportunity, shows that in 1952, 51 per cent of candidates from middle-class homes were awarded grammar school places in South-West Hertfordshire, as against only 27 per cent of lower middle-class candidates and 15 per cent of working-class candidates. In Middlesbrough the percentage of candidates awarded grammar school places was: middle class 68; lower middle-class 27; and working class 12. In both areas, children of skilled workers were more successful than children of unskilled workers, the children of clerical workers did better than the children of other members of the lower middle-class. When we consider that manual workers form over 70 per cent of the adult male occupied population, we can see how overwhelming is the weight of environment compared with any other criterion of ability to learn (such as Intelligence Quotient).
At the secondary stage the gulf continues to widen rapidly. The grammar schools are geared to the requirements of selection to the universities, the normal development of young adolescents in many spheres being overlooked for this purpose. Again the working class child is at a great advantage. Crowded home conditions where homework is difficult to do, the desire that the child should supplement the family income as soon as possible or at least not be too much of a drain on it, consequent lack of encouragement on the part of parents who because of their own early lack of opportunity perhaps see no particular point in further education, social isolation by critical friends and neighbours, cause great numbers of working class children who get to grammar school to leave early.
According to the Ministry of Education Central Advisory Council’s report Early Leaving (1954), “of those who entered the grammar schools in 1946, 24 per cent left at the age of fifteen, and only 17 per cent availed themselves of their opportunity ... to stay at school until they were eighteen.” “Children from professional and managerial families account for 15 per cent of the population, but for 25 per cent of the grammar school population and 43.7 per cent of the sixth form population.” The report concluded: “... we have found that from the children of parents in professional or managerial occupations at one extreme to the children of unskilled workers at the other there is a steady and marked decline in performance at the grammar school, in the length of school life, and in academic promise at the time of leaving.”
Children in secondary modern schools are left very much to the mercy of the head teacher. With the children’s future seen to be in the main one of semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers, the schools adapt themselves at worst to the minimum academic needs of such workers, neglecting everything else. At best, and against great odds a head teacher will attempt to give some wider cultural background. Some schools, in conjunction with their Local Educational Authorities, prepare some children for the General Certificate of Education. In the main, however, the children have reason to feel very deeply the fact that they have failed, and have been rejected by their education authorities – a feeling many teachers who have a middle class outlook have no sympathy with or do not even understand. Their revolt against those who have deprived them of their human dignity, gives rise to the numerous “blackboard jungle” incidents one hears of. In essence this is possibly the first healthy rebellion of working class youth against oppressive authority.
Upper middle class children who fail the 11-plus examination are nearly always sent to private schools, no matter how hard this may be for the parents, considering the exorbitant prices charged for private education. The reason is largely snobbery, which gives added proof of the sharp division of the different types of schools on class lines.
No wonder that at the University level children of semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers are almost entirely unrepresented and that upper and middle-class children hold a near monopoly of attendance there. According to an inquiry into Applications for Admission to Universities by R.K. Kelsall, “of all university admissions in 1955–56 with addresses in England, 74 per cent came from the professional, managerial and clerical classes. 21.7 per cent were the children of skilled manual workers, 3.4 per cent of semi-skilled manual workers and 0.9 per cent of unskilled manual workers. The picture at Oxford and Cambridge is even more sharply outlined. Only 9 per cent of entrants to Cambridge came from manual workers’ homes, only 13 per cent at Oxford.” (These figures, incidentally, are similar to those prevailing in the 1930’s).
It is thus clear that there is not equal educational opportunity in the state schools for all children in Britain.
The only way the inequality can be eliminated is by the total elimination of economic inequality which is the root cause and which begins to manifest itself educationally even before the child goes to school. The struggle for this is part of our struggle for Socialism.
Last updated: 18 February 2017