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.
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.