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Monday, December 2, 2013

Maoist class war wrecked our state schools

For too long teachers have thought it wrong to transmit 'posh' standards of literate speech, or encourage their pupils to betray their own culture
The way it was: girls join Rugeley Grammar School in 1953
The way it was: girls join Rugeley Grammar School in 1953 Photo: REX
It was all over the media last week: a veritable tidal wave of eloquent regret and outrage over the destruction of the grammar schools. Set off by a political storm over social elites and the resurgence of a private school monopoly on power, it became a thunderous chorus of denunciation of that edict which had undermined the state education system. One commentator after another, supported by legions of letter writers to newspapers and commenters on websites, joined in the public grief over what was once described as the greatest act of vandalism ever committed by a British government against its own people.
None of this was new or unfamiliar – but this time the outpouring was so unflinching in its anger that it silenced even the usual critics. What feeble scraps of argument were flung against the flood of personal testimony and unanswerable historical evidence did not stand up to examination.
The claim that grammars had never really offered opportunity to working-class children, only to ambitious middle-class ones, was beaten back by a million anecdotes from those who had themselves been rescued from what would now be called “deprivation” by the 11-plus. At best, that was an argument that had only ever applied to the richer parts of south-east England: in northern towns (like the one where my husband grew up – and from which he was rescued by school selection) whose populations were overwhelmingly working class, whole tranches of the post-war baby boom generation reached higher education because of the 11 plus examination. Which is why, in the Sixties, Britain had the highest proportion of university students from working-class backgrounds of any European country.
So yes – all those people who gnash their teeth and rend their garments in lament for the loss of grammar schools are right. It was horrendous. It was unforgivable. But, in truth, it was not, in and of itself, the reason for the catastrophic decline of British state schooling. The grammar schools – and the selection process that gave access to them – were simply a mechanism by which a particular understanding of the relationship between education and society was implemented. It was the collapse of belief in the philosophy that underpinned them – in meritocracy – which actually did the damage.
Meritocracy means rule by the most able. It requires that those of greatest talent must be identified, and permitted to reach their full potential, so that they may be elevated to the highest-possible positions in national life. No other considerations – social position at birth, family connections or economic advantage – should be considered more of a qualification for office or public position than individual ability. That was the ethos of the grammar-school movement. But it was also the implicit assumption of the entire educational system.
The whole point of schooling was to enable those who could, to rise, to leave behind the limitations of their origins. In Britain, this had very particular class connotations: the industrial revolution had left a peculiarly ugly form of social deprivation in its wake which involved mass defeatism and passivity of a kind that even compulsory schooling found difficult to penetrate.
One remedy for this was the universal examination at the end of primary school – basically an IQ test that was designed to identify intellectual potential – which would eliminate the need for self-selecting aspiration. But of course, it could not eradicate the advantages that were often (but by no means, always) associated with middle-class life: verbal fluency, higher literacy, parental enthusiasm. So the exam – and more importantly, the idea of selection itself – came to be seen as tainted.
The very possession of ability was an unjust kind of privilege. Having the sort of home or family (even if it was not a wealthy one) that encouraged you to strive, was an unfair advantage. Intelligence was unevenly distributed – and therefore must not be grounds for discrimination. So when the grammar schools went, that was just the beginning.
If comprehensives had involved simple mergers between existing schools: if they had retained academic streams and technical ones, with the basic understanding of what education was for remaining intact, then the loss of those old institutions – while still sad – would not have been ruinous. But their abolition was only one victory in a much larger political struggle to preserve class loyalty.
If all of this sounds absurd to you, then you are still running on the assumption that education exists to develop individual human potential. And that is precisely what the new educational philosophy was determined to dismantle. Schooling was no longer about encouraging children to escape from the milieu that would sink their feet in the concrete of low expectations. It was consciously designed not to do that: not to imply in any way that the child’s background was inferior – however impoverished or genuinely deprived it might be. To impose correct grammar, or academic content, or “bourgeois culture”, on working-class children was a form of social imperialism.
The language of cultural revolution was entirely appropriate – because this was a Maoist class war. You did not want able children to escape from the working class: you cannot fight a war if your troops keep going over to the other side.
So the idea was explicitly instilled in a whole generation of teachers that they must not transmit “posh” standards of literate speech, or encourage their pupils to betray their own culture which was just as “valid” as all those elitist pastimes which were “irrelevant” to the reality of their lives.
Well, you know all this. Like many others, I wrote about it so often over two decades that I became sick to death of the subject. And, you may say, the worst is over now in terms of the preposterous ideology that was drilled into a generation of teachers. But here’s the thing: pupils who were taught back in the Dark Age of British state education are now teachers themselves. They may not share the views of the headbangers who monopolise teaching union conferences, or accept the more ludicrous social engineering ambitions of their predecessors. But they have inherited a professional ethos which, until very recently, was designed not to instruct the young (“instructional” being the most pejorative word in the lexicon) in the accumulated knowledge of the adult world, in the best that their own heritage had to offer.
Which is why bringing back the grammar schools would not be a solution to our problems. What we really need is a restored belief in the liberation and the fulfilment that genuine education can provide.

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