English education: the roots of its politicisation

When I left school in the mid-sixties the Empire was effectively finished – the final nail in the coffin of imperial feeling was banged in by our entry into the EU in 1972,  which alienated the  white dominions – and a new spirit of anti-Establishment feeling was beginning to erode school discipline. But progressive ideals had not yet taken hold the  educational establishment and the comprehensive disaster was only in its infancy. The school leaving exams, the O and A Levels, were a real test of competence in both their subjects and of  the literacy and numeracy of candidates. To take but one example of the difference between then and now: even O Level science exams had, for 16-year-olds, demanding practicals as well as written papers. 

By the mid seventies the grammar schools had been reduced to a rump of a few hundred. Ironically, most of those which had converted to  comprehensive schools or which had chosen to become private schools to preserve their status,  had been forced to change by a supposedly conservative government, that of Ted Heath, whose education minister was  Margaret  Thatcher.  The  failure  of  Heath  to  stop comprehensivisation  was a harbinger of what was to happen under the future Conservative governments of Thatcher and Major.

Comprehensivisation

The comprehensive ideal  is not innately wrong.  Children of very widely differing abilities can be successfully taught  together. Traditionally, the greatest public schools  in England have been  comprehensives of a sort.  They took boys who varied from the exceptionally bright to the stonewall stupid and managed largely  to successfully educate both groups and all those in between.  The very bright won scholarships to Oxbridge, while the stonewall stupid  at least left school functionally literate.

But these schools were hopeless models for a  state comprehensive system. They drew almost all of their pupils from the middle and upper classes  and the resources available to the schools from fees and endowments vastly outstripped any that could ever be available to state funded schools. The social class of the pupils meant that the pupils had expectations of being in the higher reaches of society when they entered adult life and parents who actively wanted and expected their children to be educated. To these advantages were added  greatly  superior financial resources which permitted the recruitment of first rate staff, small classes and personal tuition.

A general comprehensive system lacks the advantages of a great public school.  Most of the schools will be dominated by the children of the working class simply because they are by far the most numerous.  That would be true even if all private schools were abolished and “bussing” of middle and upper class children was enforced to ensure that schools were socially mixed.

Inevitably the adult expectations of working class children tend to be lower than those of the middle and upper classes. Their parents are generally less supportive of the idea of education. A significant minority are actively hostile to their children becoming better educated than they are because it divorces the children from their workingclass roots.  Few will be able to provide active academic  assistance to their children.  Those facts alone make mixed ability teaching difficult. Add in the much smaller financial resources available to state schools – which expresses itself in larger classes, a narrower curriculum and, on average,  less able and  less  well motivated staff  – and you have a recipe for low educational attainment. In such schools the bright and academically interested  pupils often become isolated, under-challenged intellectually  and frequently bullied, while the duller,  non-academic majority  are allowed to plough an educational furrow,  which stretches from  academic inadequacy to an outright failure of education. 

In practice comprehensivisation was much worse than that.  Bussing was not enforced.  The better off continued to send their children to fee-paying  schools – today approximately 7 per cent  of  our schoolchildren are privately educated, a higher proportion than in the 1960s when many middleclass parents were happy to send their children to state grammar schools. (It is a grand irony that comprehensivisation rescued the public schools,  many of which were  struggling to maintain numbers by 1965).

Social segregation by the use of fee-paying schools was amplified both by the natural segregation of social classes into geographical areas – in the absence of enforced “bussing” a middle class suburb will have a local school which is largely filled with middleclass children – and by the widespread practice of middle class parents moving to areas where good state schools were available. The consequence has been a state school system which is heavily segregated by class, with the schools dominated by the working class tending to be the lowest achieving.

The subversion of the social mixing part of the comprehensive ideal was further  complicated by mass immigration. This introduced not only racial and ethnic conflict into schools, a toxic enough disruptive element in itself, but also created grave practical problems  because so many of the immigrant children did not have a competence in English.  The  official promotion of multiculturalism and  its concomitant  idea  that any member of an  ethnic  minority  is  automatically a victim of white society  complicated the position further, not least in the area of discipline. Ethnic minorities soon realised  that in the context of an  official  sponsorship  of “victimhood”  they could get away with more and more. Native English  children seeing this, naturally enough, also became more inclined to  misbehave. 

Because immigrants settled almost entirely in large towns and cities, these problems were and are confined almost exclusively to schools where the white pupils were workingclass, who found  their already inferior opportunities for education further reduced. Worse,  immigration was the final lever which allowed progressive education to not only gain absolute ascendency in the English state  educational system, but to transform the progressive ideal into an overt political ideology, the ideology we know today as political correctness.

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