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Saturday, 26 March 2022

Selective Education

My true tale about being attacked by modern school boys touched upon some of the issues related to the the post-war selective education system we had in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (but not Scotland). Mostly, from age eleven, the academically most able 25% (assessed by intelligence tests) went to grammar schools while the rest went to secondary modern schools. I want to say more about my own experience of this, and what I’ve learned since. Apologies if it makes for something of an essay.   

The Grammar School

It was rarely said out loud, but the grammar schools enjoyed three times the resources of the secondary moderns. They had their pick of the most highly qualified teachers to guide their pupils, both intellectually and culturally, towards membership of an expanding middle class. It was social engineering on a grand scale.

We might not have been fully aware of this, but it must have rubbed off in attitudes. At my grammar school, we received for free the kind of education some parents now pay tens of thousands of pounds for. Modern school pupils and their parents had every reason to resent the grammar schools.

Let me list some of what this gave us at my school:

  • Studies for G.C.E. ‘O’ and ‘A’ level qualifications offered across the full range of sciences, humanities, arts and classics.
  • A purpose-built science block containing well stocked laboratories with work benches for individual experiments.
  • Foreign language exchange trips to Belgium and Germany; geography and biology field trips and excursions.
  • Drama productions which took advantage of the magnificent, fully equipped stage with a proscenium arch and modern lighting rig.
  • After-school science, arts, crafts, hobby and debating societies.
  • Rugby, cricket and hockey teams, summer athletics sports days, and outdoor pursuits such as climbing, rambling and pot holing from the school hut in the Yorkshire Dales.
  • A gymnasium with retractable beams, ropes and wall bars, vaulting horses, spring boards and basketballs in the overflowing equipment cupboards.
  • In the hall, an electric organ with multiple keyboards, stops and bass pedals, the preserve of the ancient but gifted head of music who accompanied our uplifting Christian hymns at morning assembly.
  • Wood- and metalwork shops for boys, and needlework and domestic science for girls.

Everything was respected and looked after, with little theft or vandalism.

I am not suggesting that modern schools had none of this, just less. The only things they seemed to have that we didn’t were vegetable plots, greenhouses and chicken pens for lessons in horticulture and animal husbandry. Oh yes, and the boys played football instead of rugby.

Even the buildings shouted different levels of privilege. The grammar school’s attractive Georgian architecture in yellow-orange Flemish-bond brick, its Queen Anne cupola topped by a Viking ship weather vane, the town coat of arms carved over the door, and the foundation date in prominent Roman numerals, scorned the functional redbrick of the modern school directly across the road (above and below).

The Secondary Modern School

Typically, the two schools led to different jobs, pay levels and ways of life. Many modern school children were thought to have no future in education and encouraged to leave at fifteen. Modern school boys, such as Jibson and his mate in my story, often found themselves in blue-collar or unskilled work, typically in the engineering industries, the building and motor trades, the railways, road transport, shipping, the armed forces, mining and agriculture. Girls might at first go to work in shops or factories, but most saw this as a temporary measure before marriage, children and home making. In comparison, most grammar school pupils were still in education at seventeen and most went on to university, teacher training, the civil service or the professions. Some, like my friend Burling, did exceptionally well.

If the different levels of opportunity were an injustice, it became even more conspicuous when you realise that selection was not based entirely on merit. Children from middle-class homes full of books, culture, intelligent conversation, and the time and space to enjoy them, were far more likely to get into grammar school than those from poorer backgrounds. If there was doubt, ambitious parents would pay for private tuition to ensure they did.

Then there were children who actually did make the grade, but had their grammar school places turned down by parents because of the cost of keeping them out of paid employment. In some places, single parents were considered unable to afford the uniform, so their children didn’t get in. I also remember two boys from council houses, both well on track to pass until discovered reading ‘dirty magazines’. In an act of unbelievably small-minded, puritanical snobbery, they were peremptorily denied any opportunity of a grammar school place. They were eleven for goodness’ sake! Their places must have gone to two others, oblivious of the circumstances behind their arbitrary good fortune.

Still worse, the very principle of selection by intelligence was based upon an outrageous scientific fraud committed by the educational psychologist and government advisor, Sir Cyril Burt. He faked his studies of separately-raised identical twins to declare that intelligence was primarily determined by genetics rather than upbringing, and therefore fixed at conception. Had he been right, then selection for different kinds of education might have been sensible, but evidence points the other way. In Nottingham, two thirds of children from one middle class suburb went to grammar school, against one in fifty from an adjacent poorer area. In some depressed northern towns, less than ten per cent of all children got in. This could never have been down to intelligence alone.

I don’t want to imply that everything about grammar schools was perfect and everything about modern schools poor. Far from it. Grammar schools could be indifferent to under-achievers and modern schools launched many successful careers, but it was a dreadful waste of talent. I know ‘rejects’ who went on to demonstrate this in the most superlative way. One, after a year at the modern school, was thrown the lifeline of a transfer into the first form at the grammar school and went on to Cambridge University to qualify as a veterinary surgeon. Two others who transferred at the same time became a solicitor and an accountant. Yet more, allowed to transfer to the grammar school at sixteen after overcoming the not inconsiderable hurdle of passing ‘O’ levels at the modern school, went into teaching. But how many ‘false negatives’ and ‘late developers’ did the system miss? How many found it impossible to recover from the stigma of failure?

Selective secondary education was (mostly) abolished in the nineteen-seventies, and university provision expanded so that, today, nearly half of young people go to university. This means that around half of recent graduates would once have been ‘failed’ at eleven. Things have undoubtedly changed for the better, but there may be something in the view that we have gone too far the other way. Working in universities, I came across students (a few, but the most arrogant academics would say a lot) who simply lacked the basic levels of literacy, numeracy, ability or diligence to gain much at all from degree level study. They didn’t seem to grasp what they were supposed to be doing, or why they were there. “Pass them anyway,” said the management, off the record, “because that’s what the government wants us to do.” I suppose at least now, few can genuinely claim they have not been given some kind of opportunity.

44 comments:

  1. Sounds like the class system was in full force and going strong.

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    1. Partly, yes. Grammar School selection could be biased and unfair but they did enable a lot of working class kids to show what they were capable of and achieve potential.

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  2. We had no such system in NZ only state schools and private schools (that charged fees and taught the state curriculum, often with extra religion thrown in). F says her small-town state school enjoyed pretty much all you describe in your grammar, but they went to New Caledonia for language exchange. In discussion just this morning about schooling for grandchildren, Mr B & F agreed that education aside, the networking (leg-up opportunities provided by 'friends' - also known as 'the old school tie') is also part of the package you get from your school connections.

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    1. Fee paying and private contacts have probably always trumped education (just look at the UK government as an example). However, it sounds that for the riff-raff like us, the NZ system provides more for the many.

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  3. I went through the same system except that my grammar school, girls only, Catholic, was denied a lot of the tax paid amenities. We had an arrangement for one hour per week use of the hockey field at a secular school across town, bused there. No science lab, just a couple of benches in the "science room" shared with the sewing machines! But we got a first class education with brilliant teachers, three foreign languages, exchange trips to France, all that. Plus an excellent grounding in textile and dress making design, skills I use to this day.
    Socially it was difficult for me, a working class kid, to fit into what before the competitive entrance happened, had been a posh convent school. From my grade school of 90 kids, 12 of us won admission. From more affluent districts, almost whole classes got in. They'd been drilled daily in the exam type material for a year. We'd never seen it till the actual day. Few of them did more than struggle. From my school every one of the twelve successful students went on to higher education.

    Of my family, three got into the academic high school, the others not. But every one of the six who survived to adulthood went on to spectacular groundbreaking careers.
    My dad was a foundry worker, and one of my teachers said how could the daughter of such a person ever become a leader? This education is for leaders! Well, people like me showed people like her.
    It was a terrible system, though it worked for me, township awarded a full scholarship for my University degree, enough money to, just about, live on. My parents couldn't have helped. And at that time the Gov picked up the University tuition. Since competition was so fierce then, they could afford to finance the tiny fraction of students to gain admission.

    All different now, and instead of opportunity being opened to more, with many more uni places, it seems that it's rationed by income instead. This is not better, just bad in a different way!


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    1. Thanks for taking time to comment at length. You bear out the class discrimination in the selection process. I was careful to say that going to the modern school did not necessarily preclude a successful career - among my contemporaries were successful business owners. I also think you are right to call the present system "bad in a different way". It is even more unfair in some ways. As I say in my bio, I went to university late after retaking A-levels in my twenties. I got a full grant. I very much doubt I would have been able to do this under the current system. Both systems trap a lot of people in unfulfilling jobs, but it could be argued that the tweaks to the grammar school system that were starting to be introduced - allowing second chances - was not quite as bad as the amount of selection by wealth we now have.

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  4. I could write an article as long as this post. I'll just say that teachers are for the most part failed doers and I have more erudite conversations with fabricators and toolmakers than ever I do with the current crop of doctors or solicitors. Vets are the exception, for the most part they are competent and honest and it's worth noting they aren't state employees. The polytechnics were great.
    Cream always rises and the dross sinks. There isn't enough money to waste educating the stupid even assuming it's possible.

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    1. It's a massive topic that runs into lots of other massive topics, but sticking to my general point I still maintain that if you are going to select people for privileges (be that grammar schools or university or technical education) then it should be done in the fairest possible way. As replied to Boud, above, both the grammar school and present-day systems can trap people in unfulfilling roles and be wasteful of ability. Part of the problem is the class-based bias that law etc. = good and engineering or science = bad which the grammar schools tended to perpetuate.

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  5. I always find it interesting to read about how the schools operate in the UK, both present and past. I think many of the differences are in the names such as grammar school. Here grammar school is for the younger children ages 5-11 (or 12). I hate to see opportunities limited to those with lower incomes as that seems unfair. That sometimes happens here when wealthier neighborhoods sometimes have the better schools. This is an interesting post Tasker!

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    1. Thanks for finding it interesting, I wasn't sure anyone would. It seems odd that "grammar schools" are for younger children there. I think wealth privilege will always be an issue. Here, one way it works is through house prices. They can become unaffordable in the catchment areas of the best 5-11 schools.

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  6. That's an interesting read, confirming what I think many of us already know. I just wish you were only writing about something historical without relevance to the present education system.

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    1. I would say that equality of opportunity has taken a backward step since those days.

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  7. How sad it is children are not well educated. That, at least, is what I think, from observing the education levels of my grandchildren. Perhaps it will work out for them because that is how all the children currently are educated.

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    1. I tend to believe that education is hard gained and comes from within - that no one can teach you anything, they only demonstrate and facilitate. I also believe we've been through a time when too many things were gained too easily and seen as rights rather than privileges, so people didn't have to try hard. Teachers can't change social attitudes.

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  8. At the Grammar school I went to there was discrimination between the class streams in each year. Would you believe the top group was 'S' for special.The middle group 'G' for general and the other class were 'R' remainder. The top group got the best teachers - and the R group weren't expected to go to university. I was in the middle of the middle and left at 16 - no encouragement to stay, no careers advice.

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    1. There was awful discrimination in my school too, partly implemented through streaming. There was very little individual attention. It wouldn't have been difficult to have some kind of tutoring to identify and help under-achieving children, but the teachers just ignored them and expected them to get on with it on their own. They were only interested if they thought you were university material.

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  9. My country town secondary school had MUCH less than your Grammar school and even less that the "modern secondary" as we had no vegetable plots or chickens. We did have woodworking for the boys and Home economics for the girls where we learned to dry clean our school ties ( for heaven's sake!) and how to properly tuck in a bed sheet like it was the most important thing we ever needed to know. i was one of those who left at 15 to work in factories until I married and had children, then went back to work in factories to keep food on the table and kids in school. but I can read, write and spell and keep track of my budget, whereas these days most "teachers" starting fresh from University cannot spell, have no idea whatsoever about grammar and basic math eludes them.

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    1. Your school sounds to have been a perfect example of what was wrong with the system - most kids simply written off. The system had little conception of the skills and opportunities that would be needed in "the white heat of technology". I'm sure there are some very able and effective teachers in our schools, but when the profession isn't properly respected then it ends up having to take in less than perfect people.

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  10. There was never a shortage of tradesmen then.

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    1. True, but we also needed chemists, biologists, engineers and computer systems developers. Above all, in every area, we needed people who weren't in it for an easy ride.

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    2. You may remember the brain drain of the 1960s. We had them but they went, those who you describe in your first sentence.

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    3. My late husband and I were part of it. He was an atom scientist right after sputnik, I had multiple languages. No jobs for us in England. In 1963 many invitations from the US, do we went, never looked back. We were thrown away by the class system which wouldn't employ high achieving working class people who'd won their way through. My story reads like that of Fiona Hill, though she is far more able than I. Working class scholarship girl from the North, all doors shut, went to the US, brilliant international diplomatic career.

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    4. I know lots who went. I sometimes wish I'd taken either one of the two unsolicited offers I had. There is something to be said for the view that we should have abolished private education along with the grammar schools to reduce the influence of snobbery and entitlement.

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  11. I went to a secondary modern (failed 11+) which had the worst juvenile delinquency record in the South outside London. It had crap teachers and I was bullied right the way through by small Gypsy kids. I loathed every minute of it.

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    1. It sounds awful. I know you eventually found your own way, but it's hard to believe that particular school would have been much help to anyone wanting to be, say, a civil engineer or architect. I pick those as the kind of jobs I could imagine you being good at.

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  12. Of course I read this blogpost with great interest. It is sometimes forgotten that the drive for comprehensive education was about making the most of the talent in each cohort of children and that many influential Tories were part of that campaign. Even they could recognise that the bipartite system was responsible for so much waste which was having a negative impact on our nation's economy and future prospects.

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    1. Yes, I think that was the intention because the tripartite system (there were also a few technical schools like at Selby) was set up by the 1944 Education Act to meet the needs of the immediate post-war period. However, those needs changed rapidly so it was soon outdated. Comprehensive schools tried to rectify this but either change things too much or not enough depending on ones point of view.

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  13. In my corner of West Sussex we didn't have the 11+ as such, although the town had single sex Grammar and Secondary Modern schools. The boy's Grammar benefitted from Direct Grant status, however the other 3 schools were all very well equipped, with the Secondary Moderns particularly so for the time. Also, there was an active mobility programme between schools at both 13 and 16. My recollections from that time, compared to others in my wider family in Suffolk, are that we were fortunate in living in an area with a particularly enlightened LEA. Certainly I was not aware of the kind of inter-school bullying referred to in a previous post.

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    1. I took care to use the word "mostly" several times because Direct Grant schools were another anomally. I'm glad to hear there was mobility between the schools - Sir Alec Clegg who was the chief education officer for the West Riding LEA was gradually introducing similar transfer routes (as mentioned in the post) but seemingly this didn't go far enough for the governments of the time.

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  14. Very interesting Tasker. I read this last evening and wrote a lengthy reply but I was tired and had shaky hands and made so many mistakes I deleted it. What I wanted to say was I have had various experiences at various places in this. a) I won a scholarship a year early(10) to Christs Hospital Girls High School.My parents were in their mid forties when I ws was born and realy could not afford to send me but dad had won a scholarship earlier and didn't go for the same
    reason so they insisted I did go. I loved it and would have loved to have stayed on after 16 but couldn't - so left and got an office job. b)in my mid thirties my husband encuraged me to go to teacher training college and Iwent to West Midlands college in Walsall near to where he taught I loved it and came out top after three years - loved every minute of it doing English and Music. c)Followed on with an OU degree in Humanities. d) Eventually in quite a short time I became Head of a Unit in a very large Comprehensive School - mainly for teaching Englsi as a second language (inner city with large immigrat population). Now retired for many years and living in Yorkshire Dales one thing worries me - ther is a huge lack of tradesmen-plumbers, joiners, electricians and the like. Once the Secondary Modern Schools closed it seemed tome that skills like woodwork and thelike disappeared from the curriculum -and those who woukd have thrived on learning these skills were often left floundering in sturr which they were not interested in. I would love to have a discussion with you about this.

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    1. You must have loved the success you had in teaching after such a late start. Wasn't your husband fantastic to be supportive of teacher training! I agree that steering children towards academic subjects they don't really want to do was never a good idea. To some extent I blame the snobbery we have in this country about anything practical, but mainly I blame those politicians who chased after the easy vote and soundbite instead of listening to the experts. I get the impression this is not the case in a lot of other countries.

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    2. I blame the teachers entirely. Generations taught no respect for trades and industry.

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  15. I do apologise for the mistakes. I am no longer young and have Tremor - dare not correct in case I lose it all. The only word which you might find impossible to guess what it means is sturr in the last but one line - obviously I mean stuff.

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    1. No apology needed, Pat. I'm sure we would all rather hear from you than not, and not only because you have specialist knowledge of this very thorny subject.

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  16. Well I also failed my 11 plus, probably through sheer terror. But my childhood was messed up by illness and divorce and then moving to London at 15 years old. Like Weaver I went on to do my A levels at a later stage, and also went on to Teacher's College in Bath.
    Education is a funny old thing, the middle class aspiring their children to university and the elusive well paid job that might happen in the future.

    along the way we forget the people that actually fix our world, the men who empty your bins, the post people who deliver your mail and of course all those delivery people that brings parcels to your front doors. This social neglect will have repurcussions but the plumbers and electricians may profit from their scarcity when you need them!

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    1. It is obvious now that there were so many reasons why people didn't pass the 11+, and most of them had nothing to do with intelligence. I did get through but then messed things up at O- and A-level and now have some understanding of why. The intelligence myth was sufficiently pervasive to be seen as an uncontestable scientific measure, so that was that, and it was rare to find consideration of why individual children might be underachieving, let alone any help or support. And, yes, as Rachel says (although I wouldn't go as far as her), there was an undertone of snobbery about certain kinds of work. Not everyone can be or would want to be in one of the professions. There are a lot of very wealthy builders who started out as tradespeople living in the areas around our village.

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  17. I hadn't realized that there was such a disparity in resources between the two school system.

    Our public schools, by the way, are actually state-run schools. Whereas your public schools are what we would call private schools. Bit of a head spinner, eh? I attended American public school. -no fees, not terribly academically rigorous.

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    1. The difference levels of funding was quite a surprise to me when I first found out. I had not idea when I was at school. Regarding terminology, I try to avoid uing the term Public Schools when I can because of the possible confusion.

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  18. This was fascinating reading, we have the reverse going on here in the US, parents want to be given vouchers worth what the government pays for public education to take that voucher to a private school. Our public schools are inferior as a result of poor teachers, unions, administrators and politicians. Increasingly, minorities are seeing school vouchers as a way to ensure their children can receive a better education. The theory is that school vouchers will force public schools to improve the education all students receive as they have to compete against better performing schools. Our poorly performing inner city schools have more money spent per people than is spent in private schools.

    I read of a man once who walked out of the Kentucky woods with no formal schooling, however, his intelligence was very high because he read everything who could in his local library.

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    1. I was going to say it's all to do with funding, but then you said the state funded schools have more per pupil than the fee-paying ones, which is astonishing. Here it's the other way round with the state looking for "efficiency" everywhere and the fee-paying schools charging in some cases double the average person's salary per year, which of course only very high earners (or high inheritors) can afford. As I see it, right-wing governments prefer see public services to be privatised, so I can imagine the voucher scheme would receive their support.

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  19. Ha ha .... I like that “Pass them anyway”

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    1. Despite writing under a pseudonym, I saw many things in universities that I hesitate to talk about. Another was "gone are the days when you can expect to spend 5 hours preparing a lecture." In other words, just stand there, wing it and talk crap.

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  20. This was a very interesting post. The American system, of course, doesn't have quite this degree of rigidity* -- but there were still within schools different "tracks" for students of varying degrees of academic proficiency. Those tracks often reinforced themselves -- kids who landed in lower-level courses, even if they were smart, might be bored and lackadaisical, while better students got the best teachers and the best opportunities. There's always a degree of tension between inspiring the best learners while not discouraging or outright leaving behind everyone else.

    *The exception is schools before the Civil Rights era, when black schools were often far inferior to white ones -- and given few if any resources.

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    1. Thanks. You illustrate prefectly the problems inherent in providing better funding for the more able student. In an ideal world we'd have high levels of funding for all with money applied in different ways as required, but there is some truth in the statement that it would be unaffordable. But as someone said, if you think education is expensive, try going without. If only there were an easy way to inspire and motivate kids against the anti-learning anti-intellectual anti-expertise forces that tend to predominate.

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