Selina Todd – the myth of the grammar schools and why it still haunts usPosted: November 13, 2014
The myth of the grammar school has an extraordinary grip on the education narrative in England. There was a time in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s when grass root revolts in favour of comprehensives seemed to be turning the tide. But it hasn’t gone away and there is still a powerful lobby demanding the protection and extension of selection.
Caroline Benn was one of the foremost campaigners for the ending of selection. It was fitting therefore that, in the year after Tony Benn’s death, Selina Todd took on and demolished the myth in her Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture promoted by the SEA.
To begin with she reminded us that, in the 1940’s, the majority of the workforce it was believed needed only to be trained for routine working class jobs – in Ellen Wilkinson’s words “coal has to be mined and fields have to be ploughed”. This was an education system designed around the needs of the economy not one intended to develop the talents of the whole population.
Then as now, educational selection was about class. More than half of middle class children got to grammar school but less than one fifth of working class children did so. And once a few working class children got to grammar school, they had to face a conflict between family and community and school which led to many failing to achieve what they could have done.
Grammar schools were rarely sited in working class areas. They expected families to afford innumerable extras. They demanded pupils confined themselves to school led sports and activities and cut themselves off from their communities. Some actively rebelled, more sank into the bottom streams and left early and a few – like Dennis Potter’s Nigel Barton – rejected their background with all the trauma that that could lead to.
Meanwhile there was a great unmet demand for better education from the rejected in the secondary moderns. These schools were starved of resources and offered very narrow opportunities – with the leaving age at 15, many offered no access to qualifications. The demand for something better was documented by HMI at the time and in the Crowther Report. The result was a demand for comprehensive education in Labour and Tory areas alike, often as a result of public demand which demanded action from nervous politicians.
At the heart of the grammar school myth is the notion that they were a pathway for the “bright” working class child into middle class professions. Implicit in this is that talent is limited and that we need to rescue the talented few because if we don’t they be dragged back by the inadequacies of the majority. This is a very convenient myth for the few who made it through 11+ and grammar school. It says that they deserved their success because they are people of superior ability – most people just aren’t up to it!
Of course the reason some working class kids moved into the middle class is because the labour market was changing – the need for junior managers, technicians, teachers, nurses and so on was growing rapidly in the third quarter of the century. But the really prestigious professions remained overwhelmingly the preserve of the established middle and upper classes – as indeed they do today.
The ambition of the comprehensive movement was to educate every child not just for work but for citizenship and for a full life. It rejected the idea that there is a fixed pool of talent and that the job of schools is to sort people into the right order.
Selina Todd’s analysis of the grammar school myth resonated with the packed committee room in the House of Commons because the battle is far from won. Selection remains a reality in many parts of England. UKIP promises a grammar school in every town and Theresa May signals her support for what would be the first new grammar school in many years in her Maidenhead constituency. And of course covert selection is rampant through much of the country often but not always under the banner of religion.
The evidence is clear that comprehensives opened many doors that had been shut before. Instead of being held back by comprehensives, many more children achieved exam success and, helped by the huge expansion of higher education, proved themselves able to succeed at university. We know that selective Kent gets poorer results than comparable comprehensive counties. The international evidence from OECD is equally clear that selection damages achievement.
But still we agonise over our lack of social mobility. There is less of it now because the pool of middle class jobs is not growing as it was in the 60’s and 70’s and the privileged remain very good at keeping them for their own children.
But more fundamentally focussing on social mobility is asking the wrong question. It is assuming that the kind of inequality we have now is inevitable and the only question is who gets the prizes. But as Ed Miliband said just today “This country is too unequal. And we need to change it.”
After the lecture, John Cryer MP, chair of the SEA parliamentary group made the same point with huge passion – the issue remains class. Class determined in large measure who got to grammar schools and it still does where that system remains. But as the number of children living in poverty grows, the inequality between classes continues to constrain the opportunities open to very many children even in comprehensive schools.
An audio version of Selina Todd’s lecture is available at http://socialisteducationalassociation.org/
Her arguments are developed further in her book The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010