Education and the Working Class
The growth of state education was once called “the silent social revolution”. Few phrases ring less true. Silent it is not: loud discord is its characteristic. If a revolution, it has ended in chaos with the strategies all gone wrong and a popular feeling that those responsible deserve the worst.
The thirty-one years since the war have seen the implementation of the 1944 Education Act, which produced a tripartite system of secondary schools, followed by the demolition of that system in favour of comprehensive schools. Under the 1944 Act the school-leaving age was raised from 14 to 15, and in the last two years it has been extended to 16. Each change has been advocated as a reform containing great advantages for “the nation” and the working class, and each in due course has produced despair.
The fruits of the present system can be summarized as follows. 15 per cent, of school leavers are illiterate, according to research carried out by the Cadmean Trust (Guardian Education correspondence, 9th April 1974). It is estimated that half a million school- children in Greater London and another half-million elsewhere do not attend school at all; a high proportion of them are in the “extra year” age group between 15 and 16. “Equality of opportunity”, which was the professed aim of the reorganizations of secondary education, has never materialized. Numbers of schools are bear-gardens and teachers themselves are truants, afraid to face a daily losing battle.
To understand how and why this situation exists it is necessary to go back to the beginning of state education in 1870. At that stage in capitalism its need to systematize the existing partial facilities and have the working class educated to a basic standard had become clear. Philanthropists and radicals had agitated for education to be provided, but the motives for reform are practical ones. In particular, technical change—the petrol engine, the small electric motor, typewriter, telephone, linotype machine, cash register, tramcar, fountain pen and many other new inventions entered industry and commerce in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
The process, extended by further Education Acts in 1902 and 1918, ensured the capitalist class a supply of clerks, mechanics and shop assistants who could add figures and had been taught obedience. It also provided a means of creaming-off more proficient children to be trained for more skilled work and even to enter the universities and professions. From the nineteen-twenties onward, the established grammar schools were encouraged by financial incentives to admit increasing numbers of “scholarship” boys and girls who were likely to do well. Investment in education remained restricted, however. The 1918 Act empowered and recommended local authorities to raise the school-leaving age to 15, but between the wars there did not seem much point in providing additional education for employment when unemployment was chronic.
The 1939-45 war emphasized capitalism’s need to comb the working class for the abilities it wanted, and this turned to the special demand for technically-trained people in the nineteen-fifties. It was held that the post-1944 three types of school, based on selection at 11 years old, was inefficient in this respect: neither America nor Russia had a system of early selection, and both produced more science graduates than Britain. It seems to be wilfully forgotten now that this was one of the major arguments for comprehensive schools. Defending them in a recent television discussion Fred Mulley, the Minister for Education, said he was opposed to selection in any form. Yet the statement which committed the Labour Party to introducing comprehensive schools, Learning to Live (1958) opened with a section called “True Selection”. It claimed that selection at 11 was unsatisfactory, and that its plan would mean “real and continuing selection”.
Selection means rejection. As in the adult world for which it is the preparation (the school day is modelled on the working day), in the education system communalty and lofty motives are preached while divisiveness and mercenary aims are practised. In 1964, in a book called English for the Rejected, David Holbrook estimated that three-eighths of the secondary schools’ population formed the residue from the selection procedures, and were treated as “lesser beings” in the education system. Of this large section he wrote: “Who shall blame them for becoming a resentful group expressing their contempt for a society which treated them as ‘dim dregs’, by taking to forms of delinquency and violence, or by other forms of unsocial behaviour?”
. . . the compelling evidence is that readers of New Society have got it wrong. In the last few months four separate studies have been published, and they have iterated a single message: that there is little, perhaps nothing, that the education system in isolation can do to alter the pattern of our society.