Socialist Worker

Education: selecting for failure

The government’s plan for education will mean a return to selection and be a disaster for working class students, says Michael Rosen

Issue No. 1976

illustration by Tim Sanders

illustration by Tim Sanders

In the coming months we’re going to have quite a fight on to defend what remains of the comprehensive education system, or indeed, to make some advances. As we now know the government is hellbent on bringing in a whole new way of running secondary schools.

As we also know, all so called new ideas rest on the shoulders of old ones and what’s taking place has its roots going back as far as 1944.

It was at this moment, with most of Britain’s inner cities in ruins, a government in power that had its hands on most of industry, finance, the distribution and selling of goods and a tremendous mood of popular optimism that a group of people came up with a plan for education.

The system the government came up with was the “tripartite system”. There would be three types of secondary school — grammar, secondary modern and technical.

The spin of the day said that these would be equal but different. The grammar school would be a route into university, training college, and higher grade white collar work.

The “sec mod” would be for boys to become blue collar workers and the girls to learn a mix of “home” skills and/or low grade factory work.

The technical schools would be for kids with an aptitude for science and technology. These technical schools never got off the ground—a testimony to the backwardness of British capitalism and the intellectual elite in its attitude to technology and education.

The selection for these schools would take place at the age of 11 when everyone had to sit a series of tests in English and maths including an IQ paper.

What was concealed was that the grammar schools would receive twice as much money per pupil as the secondary modern schools and something like 5 percent of girls were prevented from taking up the places they had earned by passing the exam. It was institutionalised discrimination on a national scale.

At the time, there were people who hailed this as a great advance, and, importantly for us now, there are people who would have us resurrect the system.

On Question Time recently we had the particularly unsavoury sight of Edwina Currie lecturing black parents on how successful her “community” had been in getting her through the grammar school system.

The media is littered with people who sing the same song — “If it wasn’t for the fact that I got into a grammar school, I would be in a council house with coal in the bath.”

The lunacy of this line of argument is revealed by the simple fact that we don’t hear from the majority of people (it was around two thirds) who had to go to secondary modern schools.

They were sent there because they didn’t get the right answers in the tests they did when they were 11 years old. All we hear is that the “grammar schools offered a way out for the brightest working class kids”.

Well, yes, they did, for a tiny minority, many of whom had one key factor in their home background that wasn’t revealed in the raw statistic — things like a mother who had had higher education. This was shown in the book, Education and the Working Class by Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden,

After a mix of argument and activism, the 1944 Education Act was exposed as unfair and the only fair solution was to replicate the primary school system at secondary level.

Incidentally, no one on the right seems to be able to articulate why we think it’s OK to have comprehensive schools up to the age of 11 but not after it!

The simple purpose of the comprehensive system is that the idea of “raising standards” can only be achieved if you raise the standards for everyone.

What’s more, it’s been shown that segregating kids by so called “ability” into streams, sets, or separate schools, does not improve their chances of passing tests and exams.

So, if selecting kids into groups ranked according to exam results doesn’t get you better marks, why should politicians be demanding that schools offer different kinds of education for different kinds of pupils?

Essentially, it’s so that middle class parents can be comforted that their children will be able to get into schools with very low intakes of working class children.

This is the intention behind the academy system. A recent study has shown that the academies are already working in ways that keep out local working class kids.

Where the state used to create this segregation with a national system of tests and schools, the intention now is that this will be done locally by people with £2 million in their back pocket.

Unless we fight it, we are about to go back to the 17th and 18th centuries when the differences between schools was based on whether it was founded by a rich Protestant merchant or a bunch of Puritan shop-keepers.

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Sat 12 Nov 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1976
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