English education in saner times

I was born in 1947. Never, perhaps, has England (and Britain) been more of a coherent community.  The dramatic recent experience of the Second World War  filled the minds of everyone  and that  shared experience  bound together even more tightly  a very racially and culturally homogenous country.  It was rare to see a black or brown face even in London, and any suggestion that someone from a racial or cultural minority should do anything but  their best to assimilate into English culture would have been generally thought to touch the confines of lunacy. It was a very English, very British world. 

It was a time when Britain made most of the manufactured goods that it consumed, including its own cars, aircraft, ships, and it would have been thought extraordinary for a British Government to fail to protect British industry.  Great industrial names such as Austin (cars) and  Fry’s (chocolate) were not only English-owned and English made but leaders in the English market.  The shops which people used were generally owned by the English and more often than not family enterprises.  Every day an inhabitant of England  was reminded that  they were members of an advanced technological society which could make or grow what it wanted and that most of what they consumed was made in England (or at least Britain) or came from the Empire. 

The idea of Empire was still important – just. The fifties were the very last moment when an English boy could grow up with an  imperial consciousness as part of everyday life. There was no assumption that the Empire would collapse. India might have gone in 1947, but the assumption amongst both the general population and the political elite was that Britain would have to bear “the white man’s burden”  for many  a long year yet.  That will seem extraordinary to the point of fantasy now, but  it is true. In the forties and fifties  the Foreign and Colonial Office continued to  recruit and train young men for careers  as imperial servants such as District Officers and white  emigration from Britain to places such as Kenya and Rhodesia was officially encouraged. 

Against this background English schools taught as a matter of course a curriculum that extolled English and British values, history and culture.  History for the English child was British and imperial history first with  European history a poor second. Geography was concerned primarily with the physical and demographic demography of Britain.  English literature concentrated on the classic English texts from Chaucer through to Trollope.

But it was not simply English history and culture which was imparted. Whole class teaching was the norm with the teacher firmly in charge. Children were expected to acquire the factual knowledge of a subject as well as its process. Because discipline was not generally a problem, schools were primarily institutions to teach people rather than being the child-minding depots we all too often see today.  There is a good case for saying that the general standard of English education was never higher than in the quarter century between 1945 and 1970. This was not only because of the good overall educational standard, but because  all pupils, unlike the pre-war system, now got a secondary education as of right.

That is not to say everything in the post-war educational garden was lovely.  Before comprehensive education began under the first  Wilson Government,  English state education was divided between grammar schools, secondary moderns and a small number of technical schools – the last were intended as training grounds for artisans, to use an old fashioned word.  The consequence was to lower, irrevocably in most instances,  the social horizons and aspirations of those who did not  pass the 11-plus and go to grammar schools, because it was very difficult to move to a grammar school after the age of 11.  It also created a sense of inferiority and resentment amongst many 11-plus failures.

Despite these shortcomings,  the system was unreservedly to be preferred to what we have today. The grammar schools not only produced a  genuinely educated class, but provided  an escape  route  to something better for clever children from even the poorest backgrounds.  That opportunity grew with the significant expansion of university and polytechnic places in the fifties and sixties. In 1950 approximately  2 per cent of English school-leavers went on to higher education: by 1970, following the implementation of the Robbins Report (1963), the figure was approximately  7 per cent (and this was the age of the post-war baby-boomer generation, so there were more pupils in the age group in 1970 than 1950).  Most tellingly, in the 1960s, before the destruction of the grammar schools,  workingclass children in higher education  formed a greater proportion of the whole student body than it does now – there are more workingclass students now, but that is simply a consequence of the vast increase in those in higher education to more than 40 per cent.

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