Grammar Schools Did Not Benefit the Working Class; They Excluded Them

I got the book I ordered on James Callaghan’s period as Prime Minister, James Callaghan: An Underrated Prime Minister, edited by Kevin Hickson and Jasper Miles through the post yesterday. It’s a collection of papers on various aspects of Callaghan’s government. I’ll put up a piece introducing it later. I’ve only been dipping into it, reading the odd chapter.

The defeat of Callaghan’s government at the 1979 general election and the victory of Maggie Thatcher ushered in a period of Tory rule that lasted until 1997 when Blair got into power. But he was also a Thatcherite, and in some ways it was a change of face, not a change of direction. Callaghan’s defeat meant the end of the old social democratic consensus, but as recent events are showing, elements of this consensus are still very much relevant and desperately needed. Such as the return of the public utilities to public ownership.

One of the issues the Tory leadership candidates have been promising is the return of the grammar schools. Well, bog-eyed Nicky Morgan promised this a few years ago, and the policy was a failure then. There’s a considerable nostalgia for them in certain parts of the British electorate that still resents the establishment of comprehensive school. For these people there’s a simple difference between the two. Comprehensive schools are nasty failures showing everything wrong with progressive attitudes to education, while the grammar schools with their tradition values were so much better. The Tories have been pushing this line since 1969 or so. The line is that through scholarships and the 11+, working class children who went there had a far better education than they now have in comprehensive schools. But this is a very rosy view of the reality, which was that the grammar schools were solidly middle class institutions from which the working class were largely excluded.

Jane Martin, one of the contributors to the book on Callaghan, makes this point in her chapter ‘Education: Politics And Policy-Making with the Intellectuals of ‘Old’ Labour’. She writes

‘Government reports and sociological surveys soon evidenced the reality behind secondary education for all. It was obvious that middle-class offspring dominated grammar intakes, owing to advantages imbued by family background, and social class remained a major influence on educational achievement. From 1946, the secondary modern schools and bottom streams of the grammar schools were full of working class children who had largely negative experiences. Defenders of selective education argued only a small number of children had the academic ability to attend grammar schools, but research showed that coaching and intensive tuition, used by the middle classes, improved test scores. Added to which, successes secured by fifteen- and sixteen-year old secondary modern school candidates for the new ‘O’ Level examinations exposed the fallibility of a selection process that made it acceptable for around 80 per cent of mainly working-class children to ‘fail’.’ (p. 166).

This is what the Tories are really promising when the start the nonsense of going back to the grammar schools: the exclusion of the working class from a superior set of school intended to cater for the middle classes. Even Thatcher’s education minister, Rhodes Boyson, recognised this. When he was a teacher in a secondary modern he put some of his pupils forward for ‘O’ levels, because he knew they could pass them.

Sunak and Truss are once again pushing for policies designed to keep the working class down, all based on nostalgia for a previous education system that was seriously flawed, but has been promoted as far better than the comprehensive system. But the fact that they’re now talking about how wonderful grammar schools were is also a tacit admission that their academy schools are also a failure.

There is no alternative to keeping comprehensive schools. What is needed is not their abolition, but their better funding and a real drive to improve educational standards. Not more class snobbery disguised as educational meritocracy.

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2 Responses to “Grammar Schools Did Not Benefit the Working Class; They Excluded Them”

  1. Mark Pattie Says:

    I can quite imagine Sunak calling for the return of grammar schools, as he went to Winchester (albeit on a scholarship). However, I don’t think many 2019-intakers would be in favour of the reintroduction of grammar schools (as most of that intake are from genuinely working-class areas). It tends to be 2005- and 1997-intake Tories who are most favourable (such as Graham Brady and Philip Davies).

  2. Brian Burden Says:

    Depends on the Grammar Schools I suppose. There
    were plenty of working class kids at the one I attended, and many of them went to uni. The 1950s was a more egalitarian age and unless your parents were rich your university career cost them nothing.

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