Sunday, 31 March 2013

An interesting social history of selective education...

I thought that readers might like to read a review of one of my recent books about education and schooling:

Like it or not, British education post-war was dominated by the 11-plus which divided those pupils who went on to Grammar School at 11, and the vast majority who didn't.
In fact, at least three quarters of children failed the exam and ended up at secondary schools, which is where they stayed until they left to find a job at the age of 15.

"The history of this 75 per cent or more of children who were neither privately educated, nor attended grammar school, has often been neglected and sometimes entirely overlooked," says Simon Webb, the author of a new book on the subject.
"Fictional accounts of childhood during this time, from Enid Blyton's Famous Five stories to C S Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, show a world where independent, fee-paying schools are the norm," he adds.
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"Real life reminisces of school in the late 1940s and Fifties seem to focus upon the lives of children at grammar and private school, rather than exploring life at ordinary primary schools and secondary moderns."
Simon's book, a lively and fascinating mix of personal reminisces and well researched fact, follows the nation's schoolchildren as Rab Butler's 1944 Education Act was translated into reality.
Under Butler's scheme – part of a "brave new world" – every child in the country would have access to free education through a system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools.
As many authorities failed to institute the technical schools, it was left as pretty much a two-tier system.
From 1947, despite considerable opposition, all children were obliged by law to remain in full-time education until they were 15 years old.
Despite the snob appeal of the grammar schools – pupils had to wear a uniform and boys a cap – the Labour Party were strongly in favour of them.
They regarded these establishments – many of which had once been private – as agents of social mobility which would enable bright working-class pupils to "fulfil their potential".
Nevertheless many aspects of the grammar schools – including the use of surnames and teachers wearing gowns – mirrored those of the private schools, on which they were based.
For so-called "late developers" there was access to these schools through 13-plus exams, although in reality this was nothing more than a trickle.
Bright pupils from secondary moderns were either not encouraged, or not able, until 1965, to take CSE or GCE exams.
In fact many left school without any qualifications whatsoever, a situation which barred them from any type of office work, however lowly.
By the 1950s it was becoming obvious, says Simon, that the 11-plus was doing nothing but sort out articulate middle-class children, often not the brightest, and provide them with grammar school places.
"It is worth noting that throughout the 1940s and Fifties half of the children attending grammar schools were from middle-class families," says Simon Webb.
"This was wholly disproportionate to the size of the middle classes at the time and suggested that they were taking up more than their fair share of places.
"Whatever had earlier been claimed the 11-plus examination had little to do with intelligence and everything to do with previous schooling and education."
For those starting out at primary school, which was at five, as it is today, the occasion was either traumatic or eagerly awaited.
In those days mothers were always busy – Monday's washing could take all day and shopping was a daily chore – and with few amusements, such as TV, many children were bored.
If you were lucky enough to find yourself at an infant school which had graduated from chalk and slates to pencils then, at seven, there were dip pens and ink, which could make an awful mess, even with blotting paper. Even after they were being mass produced, in the 1960s, many schools still refused to let their children use Biros.
Age seven, and now in the juniors, pupils would be streamed, A, B or C according to ability, and even moved around in class after a weekly test.
The A stream pupils, many of who, it must be said, had natural ability, would be groomed for the 11-plus and a possible place at grammar school.
Due to a post-war "bulge" there could be as many as 40, or even 50, children in just one class.
Given these high numbers (most private schools aimed for half of this) then perhaps it was in the nature of things that slower pupils were overlooked while attention was focused on the brightest.
Teachers' "pets" were a well- known phenomena.
Such was the division at 11 that many pupils who had passed the 11-plus found themselves cut off socially from the friends that they had grown up with at primary school.
Snobbery, a fact of life in post-war Britain, remained rife.
If you grew up in the post-war years, as I did, then this book will bring the memories – both good and bad – flooding back.
Little did we realise (did anyone, apart from the educationalists) that we were being used as guinea pigs in a huge piece of social engineering.
Just how much the education we got fitted us for life outside the school gates is another question all together, beyond the remit of Simon Webb's book.
One secondary school pupil describes how he learned more from a teacher who let them tinker with (and drive!) his old car than he ever did in the classroom.
The chapters on discipline, uniforms, religion and school buildings I found especially interesting.
The Best Days of our Lives by Simon Webb is published by The History Press at £12.99.

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1 comment:

  1. Very similar to the fact that history tends to be perceived as relating to the great and good or those who fought battles. Rarely the common man.

    I haven't read your book but believe that you would write well about the common man.