Where they teach you how to be thick

ESSAY: State education has consistently encouraged working-class children to accept their lot in life.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics UK

In West London, journalist Toby Young is planning a ‘free school’. Established by a self-selecting group of parents, independent of local education authorities, this will be a school that will receive its money direct from the Department of Education. And it will aim to teach to the highest of academic standards. Education secretary Michael Gove has backed the model, and asked others to follow it. Thirty-five other ‘free schools’ have also been planned.

The Campaign for State Education, along with Local Schools Network run by Fiona Millar, has slated Young and his free schools. These groups argue that the middle classes will use these ‘free schools’ to opt out of mainstream schools. This is true: middle-class parents have always tried to establish special schools for their own children. But 35 free schools are no threat to the 25,000 state schools in Britain.

So is the middle-class opt-out such a great problem? It certainly seems easier to talk about middle classes abandoning state schools than to face up to the fact that state schools are failing working-class children. Of course, in the long run, the schools are not where the problem starts. The lack of ambition for kids in schools is only a part of a society-wide shortfall in hopes for the future. Still, if schools are at issue, then we ought to tell the truth about them.

It is the working class that has been let down by state schools

As loudly as the middle classes moan about the state school system, it is the working class that has been let down. Middle-class children do very well out of state education. It is the middle-class children who pass the exams, and get the college places. They go on to get good, well-paid jobs, too. Working-class children, however, do worse than they ever have.

Studies for the Sutton Trust found that social mobility in Britain started to go backwards from 1970 onwards – those born after 1970 will earn no more than their mums and dads. As the graph below shows, since 1973 wages have fallen as a share of Britain’s wealth, from 65 per cent to 55 per cent.

Since the 1960s there have been big reforms in schools and colleges:

  • Comprehensive schools were brought in, in 1969.
  • The school leaving age was raised from 14 to 16.
  • The share of those going on to colleges and universities was boosted from 8.4 per cent in 1970 to more than a third today

These reforms were supposed to help working-class people. Instead the working class has lost out. Wages have not kept up with growth, as the graph below shows. Working-class people are doing no better than their mums and dads before them.

You might argue that the schools did not make the class divide – and you would be right. But schools have not done anything to fix the class divide, either. All those years of education reform have done nothing for working-class people.

The state education system has let down the working class. It has not helped people to better themselves. Instead it churns out school-leavers who are more divided along class lines than ever before. For working-class children, state education is not part of the solution. It is part of the problem.

When there really were Free Schools

Today it is socialists who are most often found championing state education. But that was not always so. Before governments set up schools, working-class people made their own. Corresponding societies started their own night classes and Sunday schools in Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Norwich and elsewhere from 1790 onwards. Two thousand met regularly for class discussions at the Sheffield Constitutional Society, and reprinted Tom Paine’s Rights of Man.

In the wake of the fight for the vote during the 1810s, adults in Lancashire set up Hampden Clubs, which were secular Sunday schools discussing radical books: ‘Instead of attending divine service’, reported a Lancashire magistrate’s spy, ‘the Sundays of the people were occupied in the reading of Cobbett, Paine and other similar publications that were industriously circulated amongst them’.

The Co-operative Societies started schools for children around 1825, and there were Socialist Schools across England, like those in London on Charlotte Street (infants) and a Free School for ‘children of the disciples of Robert Owen’ in Golden Square in the 1830s. In 1832 Salford parents were ‘told from the pulpit that the parents would go to hell’ if they sent their children to a nearby Owenite school. In 1840 Robert Owen’s Hall of Science opened in Manchester. Proving to be a centre of socialist agitation, a Sunday school there had 250 pupils in attendance in 1842, and a day school with over 100.

In 1837 the Chartist William Lovett said: ‘Be ours the task, then, to unite and instruct them [the people]; for be assured the good that is to be must be begun by ourselves.’ He was good to his word. Chartists built schools like the Carpenters’ Hall (f. 1838) in Manchester and the People’s Institute at Heyrood Street (f. 1836), which were schools for adults and children – like others in Birmingham, Leeds and Oldham. They studied Shakespeare, Andrew Marvell, John Milton, George Washington, William Cobbett, William Tell, Major Cartwright and Algernon Sydney.

There were schools for girls, too. The rules of the Blackburn Female Union said that the schools were ‘to instil in the minds of our children a deep and rooted hatred of our corrupt and tyrannical rulers’ (Manchester Observer, 26 June 1819). These really were free schools – schools run by working class people, for themselves and for their children. But it was not long before these free schools were attacked.

The origins of state education

When Robert Owen opened the Hall of Science in Manchester, a committee of churchmen and mill owners was set up to put down ‘that hideous form of infidelity which assumes the name of socialism’. The good burghers of Manchester founded their own school to rival Owen’s. Soon after, the Hall of Science was set on fire.

The attack on the Hall of Science was just the beginning of the ruling-class attack on working-class schools. Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth, a baronet, was made Britain’s first secretary of education in 1839 – it was his job to set up a state education system in Britain.

Kay-Shuttleworth’s principal motivation in 1839 was a fear of the growing, and independent, working-class movement: ‘We confess that we cannot contemplate with unconcern the vast physical force which is now moved by men so ignorant and so unprincipled as the Chartist leaders.’

Kay-Shuttleworth knew that it was the Chartists’ own schools that were helping to spread the word – which is why he thought that the state should step in and set up its own schools, as an exercise in mind control: ‘If they [the working classes] are to have knowledge, surely it is the part of a wise and virtuous government to do all in its power to secure them useful knowledge and to guard them against pernicious opinions.’

The mill owners and landlords did not like parting with their money, but Kay-Shuttleworth told them schools would ‘promote the security of property and the maintenance of the public order’. Spending a little money on schools now would save them their whole fortune, said the first minister of education, ‘Only by experience and education can the workmen be induced to leave undisturbed the controls of commercial enterprises in the hands of the capitalists.’ Ever since then, the whole point of state schools has been to curb the threat of the working class.

Forster go to school

The first law to say that you could be forced to go to school – compulsory education – was passed in 1870. It was the idea of William E Forster: ‘We had this fearful state of things – a large portion of the nation growing up in our large towns without education, and ready to become members of the dangerous classes.’

Forster’s backer, MP Charles Buxton, made it clear at whom the act was aimed: ‘No feeling of tenderness for the parents would deter him for one minute from adopting compulsion. Society was suffering grievously from their shameful apathy with regard to the education of their children.’ (House of Commons, 12 March 1869)

Forster forced mums and dads to hand over their children to the vicars and priests who ran the church schools – who duly beat the word of God into their backsides – from the age of eight to 13. Later on Forster would force Irishmen to obey British rule under the so-called ‘Coercion Act’.

The 1944 Act and a Brave New World of tripartite education

‘Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able…’

This was what the ‘Beta’ children learned, by rote, while they slept, in Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel, Brave New World. It was a nightmare warning of what could happen if children were split up into bands at birth and given their lot in life. But 14 years later, the Labour government made Brave New World real.

Tasked with setting up schools for children aged 11 to 15, Labour education minister Ellen Wilkinson told local authorities to ‘think in terms of three types’ of state school (Circular No 73, 12 December 1945). The three sorts of schools were: grammar schools for clever boys and girls; technical schools for practical children (only a few were built); and, last of all, new ‘modern’ schools for working-class children ‘whose future employment will not demand any measure of technical skill or knowledge’ (Ministry of Education, 1945). ‘Not everyone wants an academic education’, Wilkinson said: ‘After all, coal has to be mined and fields ploughed.’

Wilkinson was on the far left of the Labour Party. But just what ‘left wing’ meant was changing. In Churchill’s war cabinet Labour ministers got into the habit of pushing people from pillar to post. The ‘tripartite’ education system seems a bit stiff-necked today; it treated boys and girls like cogs in a machine. But that was pretty much in keeping with the way that ministers bossed workers around in the war.

The ‘Blackboard Jungle’ scare

The upwardly-climbing liked grammar schools. Ellen Wilkinson’s Ardwick Grammar School helped her out of the working class and into Manchester University. Another Labour minister, Roy Jenkins, went to Oxford after Abersychan County Grammar – not bad for a miner’s son. Shopkeeper’s daughter and later Tory education minister Margaret Thatcher went to Kesteven and Grantham Girls School before going to Oxford.

But three-quarters of children did not go to grammar schools. An exam at age eleven – the ‘Eleven Plus’ – sorted children out into the grammar school winners and the secondary modern school losers. It was called ‘selection’. That meant a lot of unhappy children, and unhappy parents.

Before long, the better-off began to get scared of what was going on in secondary modern schools. Newspapers ran scare stories about crime and violence in ‘The Blackboard Jungle’ (taken from the title of a New York school novel and film).

‘A 15-year-old boy draws a knife on a master who is chastising him then waits for the teacher with a studded belt outside – forcing him to ask for police protection.’ This lurid tale was part of a big ‘Blackboard Jungle’ spread in the Sunday Graphic, 12 July 1959. The News Chronicle editor backed up such scare stories, saying, ‘until the black spots in secondary schools are cleaned up they will continue to taint the whole’ (in a letter to The Schoolmaster, 23 September 1955).

Secondary modern teachers wrote racy novels, like ER Braithwaite’s tale of hopeless youngsters stirred by a young Guiana-born teacher, To Sir, With Love. It was published in 1959 and made into a film with Sidney Poitier eight years later. Another was Edward Blishen’s The Roaring Boys – a Schoolmaster’s Agony. The blurb read: ‘They came from the backstreets and slums of London’s east end. They were the roaring boys. Teenage delinquents living for kicks. Young tearaways full of searing hate and fury.’

Class war

It was fear of the young tearaways that put an end to school selection and the tripartite system. It was fear of the class war getting out of hand. In a speech in 1966, Labour minister Tony Crosland owned up to a ‘deeply felt’ and ‘controversial’ view that ‘separate schools exacerbate social division’ and ‘the eleven plus divides overwhelmingly according to social class’.

Crosland did not want to start a class war. He wanted to stop one. He promised he would not ‘argue the point in terms of equality’; he would argue it ‘in terms of a sense of cohesion’. ‘We only have to consider our industrial relations’, he warned, ‘to see the depth of social division’. ‘But so long as we choose to educate our children in separate camps’, he warned, ‘for so long will our schools exacerbate rather than diminish social divisions’.

The rise of the meritocracy?

Crosland’s fears of class war were outlined by the social scientist Michael Young, the collator of the 1945 Labour Party manifesto in which Labour promised to build new secondary schools. In 1958 he wrote The Rise of the Meritocracy, a darkly comic fable set in the year 2033, which tries to guess at what will happen to a country that selects its children according to their ‘eleven plus’ scores – what he called ‘a meritocracy’.

In The Rise of the Meritocracy the upper-class owes its standing to intelligence, not money or land. But they have made an awful mistake. The lower orders, domestic servants and the ‘Technicians Party’ rise up in revolt against the cruel meritocracy. Half a million copies of The Rise of the Meritocracy were sold worldwide. The case for the comprehensive school, and against selection, was won. It was won because while the ruling class were too scared of what would happen to the working class if they were shut up in no-hope schools, the middle class were too embarrassed to say out loud what they secretly thought: that their sons and daughters deserved better than the rest. (Michael Young is Toby Young’s dad.)

School choice

Even though comprehensive schools became the norm, the professional classes were never really happy about it. Right-wing university lecturer GH Bantock was outraged at the idea that ‘the future doctor, dustman, admiral and cabin-boy must be taught together in the same mixed-ability class’. Instead of calling for a return to the eleven plus and selection, critics called for different kinds of schools and for school choice.

What they meant was that some schools could be made more ‘academic’ and that they could ‘choose’ to send their kids there.

The ‘bog standard comp’

Comprehensive schools have failed working-class children. The results are there for everyone to see.

The Labour Party leaders do not send their children to comprehensive schools. Tony Blair sent his children to the London Oratory – a grant-maintained school. So did New Labour stalwart Harriet Harman. Alastair Campbell, Blair’s press secretary, is one of few who does send his sons to a comprehensive school: William Ellis in Camden. It was Campbell who coined the phrase ‘bog standard comp’.

Expectations raised… and lowered

Middle-class people have always been anxious about schools. But nowadays, everyone is. In the old days, workers tried to better themselves through trades unions. But those collective bodies are not what they used to be. In a more individualistic society, it seems that education counts for a lot more. So it is that parents are a lot more anxious about schools. They hope that schools can fix things for their children.

Colleges have used those fears to boost their intake. Governments have used parents’ hopes – and fears – over schools to connect with them. Tony Blair liked to boast that he believed in ‘Education, Education and Education’. Governments have attacked teachers and schools to try to get on the good side of parents. They have used all kinds of tricks to do it.

They have tricks like printing ‘league tables’ of how good schools are doing, or giving parents the ‘choice’ of where to send their children (that somehow never comes about). In fact, hopes for schools are so high that parents are bound to be let down. Even the government is a bit worried that they cannot meet those hopes.

Reforms like rewriting the national curriculum, targeting ‘bad’ teachers and bringing in more and more tests, are all ways that governments have tried to get more out of schools. What they have not done is to offer those children at those schools the good jobs and brighter futures that will make them want to try harder.

All too often, though, teachers, heads and local authorities have answered government and other critics by going on the defensive. Caught up in parents’ high hopes, teachers and others come back by trying to lower those expectations. Too often they say ‘it’s not us, those children are just not that academic’. Or they find some other reason why children cannot be expected to do well. When teachers hear schools being attacked, they think it is an attack on them. Used to hearing right-wing complaints against state schools, they rush to defend the state school system.

But that is a terrible trap. State schools are failing working-class children. What is more, state schools are failing teachers. Poor pay, bad managers, difficult classes and getting blamed for everything that goes wrong – that is what state schools offer teachers. There is no reason for teachers to try to defend the state school system. To see teachers attempt to shift the blame for poor outcomes from the schools on to the children themselves, or their backgrounds, or their parents, just makes those parents even angrier with schools.

Lowering parents’ ambitions for their children is just another way of saying that they should put up with poor schools. In fact, lower expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When teachers say that schools cannot do any better, they make sure that schools will not do any better.

Defensive over standards

Teachers have often been attacked over standards. Children’s poor exam results, poor reading and writing, poor knowledge of history and science are all laid at teachers’ doors. In truth, it is the schools that have failed not the teachers.

More often than not, though, schools shift the blame on to the children. The National Union of Teachers thought it was wrong to compare ‘schools in economically and socially deprived areas’ with those ‘which receive the value-added advantage of parental support for their pupils’ learning’. Instead, says the NUT, marks should be skewed to take into account the poorer marks of ‘for example, minority ethnic pupils, including EAL, Traveller and refugee pupils’. (February, 2007) So instead of looking at the bare marks children get in their tests, we should ask how well they do as Travellers, ethnic minorities, refugees. This is called ‘value added’.

But parents do not want their children taught to a standard expected of those from their social class. They want them taught to the same high standards as children from better-off homes. Special pleading about Travellers, ethnic minorities and refugees is a way of shifting the blame for poor marks on to the children themselves. For example, Coventry teacher Jane Nellist thinks it is ‘very unfair’ that children from ‘independent and private schools [are] compared with schools from deprived communities’. She is saying that the poorer marks of worse-off children should be covered up, so as not to embarrass them: ‘schools are all putting a huge amount of effort in to make sure that our young people achieve their potential.’ (Coventry Telegraph, 14 January 2011)

That is her way of saying that you cannot teach poor people as much as the better off. They should be glad to reach the ‘potential’ right for their social class, she is saying. As long as we look at the ‘value added’ instead of the real marks, we can all pretend that the working-class students at the comprehensive school are getting just as good an education as the public school boys at the top end of town – or at least as good as students with ‘their potential’ can expect, anyway.

Instead of wanting to shield schools from criticism, teachers should push the problem back on their managers. Before he was a poet, Yorkshire schoolboy Tony Harrison was made to feel small about the way he spoke. He tells the story in the poem, ‘Them and Us’, where the master puts him right: ‘We say “us” not “uz”’. It is a funny story. But nowadays teachers are more likely to go too far the other way.

Professor Brian Cox chaired the National English Curriculum Working Group in 1988. Cox said it was ‘dangerous to tell a five-year-old boy or girl that his or her mother uses language incorrectly’. (Cox on Cox, 1991, p32) ‘Non-standard English’ was just as good as standard, said Cox.

No it is not. When to tell children off is always a judgement call. But standard English is a standard for a reason. The slang children use in the playground is their business. But teachers do working-class children no favours flattering their bad grammar in the classroom. Anyway, children laugh when teachers try to get down with the kids. Better to try to pass on what teachers do know than to make a virtue out of poor speech.

Defensive over behaviour

Assistant head Katharine Birbalsingh recently stated that schools were letting their working-class children down. Instead of taking up their bad behaviour, schools made excuses for it, and made it worse. The schools were, she said, ‘keeping poor people poor’.

Maybe it was because she chose to speak out at the Conservative Party’s 2010 conference, but Birbalsingh was roundly attacked by teachers, and by Fiona Millar for attacking state schools. And that was the point. Where most scare stories about schools put the blame on tearaway children, Birbalsingh put the blame where it should lie: with poor management in state schools.

Birbalsingh’s head, Irene Bishop, sent her home. The National Union of Teachers said Birbalsingh was wrong: the school was greatly improving. But parents did not think so. Only 16 children applied to join the school in 2011, and it had to close. Birbalsingh’s stories were backed up by other teachers, who told of the head being booed at school assemblies.

Chairman of the school governors, canon Peter Chalk, blamed Birbalsingh for wrecking the school with ‘bad publicity’. But it was Peter Chalk and Irene Bishop who wrecked the school with bad discipline.

James Heartfield is a director of the development think-tank and the author of The Aborigines’ Protection Society, 1836-1909, to be published by Hurst and Columbia University Press in June (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit his website here.

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Topics Politics UK


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