04 June 2012

On merit

I was born into the socially-hopeful 1950s. Post-war austerity was giving way to the New Look; rock'n'roll was arriving with new sounds, and bringing with it new ways of relating, new attitudes to authority, and new expectations about how life should be. Technological development was heating up.with the invention of the transistor, the basic building block of all electronics. The first programmable computers were being built and put to work. Rocket programmes in the Soviet Union, the United States and in the United Kingdom promised satellites, space travel and the possibility of exploring other worlds. Jet engines began to be used for commercial, not just military, travel. Watson, Crick and Franklin had discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. Nuclear power stations were being built to replace the use of dirty fossil fuels.

In the UK the first motorways were being planned; public broadcast television had just expanded to a second channel; the National Health Service, still in its infancy, required doctors and nurses; aerospace required engineers; pharmaceutical companies required biochemists. These and many other industries required cognitively-able personnel. In response, the Conservative government set up the Robbins Committee that first met in 1961 which recommended in 1963 that the university system be expanded considerably. The report also concluded that university places "should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment".

Further, the pace of technological change left the UK Civil Service significantly under-resourced for the requirements of the time. Harold Wilson's new Britain was being forged in what would become 'the white heat of a technological revolution' that required more technocrats and fewer mandarins to adminster goverment, and he asked John Fulton to chair a committee to consider the needs of the civil service. The so-called mandarins were classically-educated generalists: between 1948 and 1963 only 3% of the recruits to the administrative class came from the working classes, and in 1966 more than half of the administrators at under-secretary level and above had been privately educated. Wilson and Fulton wanted the old Britain that had run along class lines to give way to a new Britain in which ability was ascendant.

In 1943 the Norwood Committee reported on ideas for a major revision of the system of secondary eduation in the UK. They proposed a new tripartite system of state-funded secondary education: grammar, technical and 'modern' schools. The report proposed the use of several factors to determine which kind of secondary school a pupil should attend, foremost of which was the recommendation of the primary school teacher, and taking into account the wishes of the child's parents. The use of testing was also mooted. There are many interesting features of the Norwood Report, the overall effect of which was to throw a free secondary education open to giirls and to the working class, funded by local authorities. However, it was not proposed that independent (much of it fee-paying) secondary education should be abolished. Instead, independent grammar schools were permitted to receive direct payments from the government for the price of offering a number of free places to pupils whose parents were unable to afford the fees. These were the Direct Grant Grammar Schools. The subsequent 1944 Education Act enacted the recommendations of the Norwood Committee, with a number of changes, the most notable of which was the method by which pupils were allocated to the appropriate school: the use of an examination called the Eleven Plus. Had another feature of the Norwood Report been put into practice the use of what became the dreaded Eleven Plus would have been less divisive: Norwood made it clear that during the lower years of secondary education, there should be a flow of pupils between the different types of school, so that by the time the pupil reached the upper years, it would be clear that they were in the most appropriate type of school. However, in practice, this flow of pupils barely ever happened. Instead, the Eleven Plus examination became the crossroads at which pupils were almost irrevocably sorted into the 'modern' (secondary modern), grammar and independent (public - fee-paying) schools. Norwood proposed, and the 1944 Education Act permitted the formation of secondary technical schools, but in reality very few were ever built, partly because they were considered inferior to grammar schools, and partly because the kind of technical vocational education they were supposed to offer was seen by many as the domain of apprenticeships. (My first secondary teaching practice was at a former secondary technical school in Ferryhill, County Durham, UK.)

Despite the socially progressive issue of the extension of secondary education to all, and not simply the preserve of those whose parents could afford to pay, the system that was created also entrenched class divisions. Wealthy parents, who could easily afford to send their child to a fee-paying school continued to do so. Not so wealthy parents whose son or daughter was academically less-able could still pay for a private education; but now the more academically-able offspring were able to attend the state-funded grammar school. Parents with little money could not afford to pay school fees, and so their offspring went either to the grammar school (if they could pass the Eleven Plus) or to the secondary modern school. However, access to the grammar school, whilst theoretically class-blind, was far from equal, and the resulting socio-economic demographic of the school was at some considerable variance from that of the communities in which the schools were based: grammar schools had a significant middle-class component, or were even substantially middle-class, whereas secondary modern schools were overwhelmingly working class. It is not hard to see why. Middle-class families were able to provide their children with books and magazines, a wealth of cultural experiences and opportunities (visits to art galleries, the theatre, the ballet, and holidays), and perhaps most importantly an expectation of academic success. In contrast, working class families typically had little if any reading material at home; economic poverty delivered few cultural opportunities; and again perhaps most importantly, poverty of aspiration meant that blue-collar, shop-floor work was inevitable - eloquently explored in Barry Hines' novel  A Kestrel for a Knave, and brought to public attenntion by the movie Kes, directed by Ken Loach.

Notes to self:
1. The 1943 Norwood Report is seriously interesting to read.

2. The 1944 Education Act raised the minimum school leaving age from 14 to 15. Norwood specifically considered that the school leaving age should be raised from 15 to 16. This process was not started until 1964, suffered four years to of delay, and was finally put into practice on 1 September 1972. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_of_school_leaving_age_in_England_and_Wales

3. " Differentiation of pupils for the kind of secondary education appropriate to them should be made upon the basis of (a) the judgement of the teachers of the primary school, supplemented if desired by (b) 'intelligence' and 'performance' and other tests. Due consideration should be given to the choice of the parent and the pupil"

4. Norwood allowed for the creation of comprehensive schools.

5. With the proposed raising of the school leaving age from 16 to 18 in 2013, and the relatively high proportion of 18 year old moving on to university, it seems clear that the dismantling of the tripartitte system has simply delayed segregation from 11 to 18.

... to be continued

No comments: