A Revolution Betrayed: How Egalitarians Wrecked the British Education System
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The Impact of Selective Secondary Education on Progression to Higher Education (HEPI Occasional Paper 19) Heads may swim at the detail in this book and the seemingly endless categories and sub-categories of schools and examinations, the maze of educational pathways and the bewildering succession of government reports. In his clear desire to be, in the best sense of the word, comprehensive, Hitchens has assembled an arsenal of information and unleashes a relentless fusillade of facts and figures that can be overwhelming at times. There is some repetition – Shirley Williams’s hypocrisy in sending her daughter to a grammar school despite a political life of implacable anti-grammar activism gets several mentions. It is striking that the book sees how hard individuals work at age 11 as a just way of determining their future, and views measuring academic potential as so straightforward that there is absolutely no reason to worry about the validity of such judgements. From the book’s perspective, you either believe education is for academic rigour, selection and knowledge or you believe it is for in social engineering in the name of equality. To protect academic rigour, it is insistent that we need to select people early and separate those who will be paid to think from those who will not. Anyone who dares suggest that such divisions might be harmful to society, or feels that determining people’s academic futures at such a young age results in a massive waste of human talent, are dismissed as deluded egalitarians. The book equally appears to have little time for anyone who wants an open education system in which people have chances to engage with knowledge at different points in their lives and find out how they can use it to contribute to society. Nonetheless, I would, without doubt, support any return to selection by ability, rather than income, at the drop of a hat, in the unlikely event the electorate were to be given the chance to choose, by the current crop of political elites, who, ostensibly, stand on either side of the imaginary divide between the two main parties. This creates a more meritocratic society where professional, educational and economic success more closely correlate with real ability, rather than inherited privilege. This is not just more fair, but also benefits society as a whole, as the economic potential of the country is maximised.
One of the revelations of this book is the extent to which the proponents of the comprehensive system were motivated by red in tooth and claw Marxism. Brian Simon, for example, the intellectual force behind the movement, was a member of the British Communist Party. Hitchens speculates that the deeper motivations for the comprehensive school project were closer to Marxism/Leninism than could ever be admitted. Did the almost deranged hatred of grammars, exemplified by Crosland, have as its wellspring the fear that foot soldiers in a future proletarian army were being lost to the unbiddable ranks of the middle-class? Was the comprehensive school movement a campaign for social immobility and a first, necessary phase in Britain’s ongoing cultural revolution? ‘The process was profoundly political from the beginning,’ says Hitchens. ‘There was never any educational argument for the change.’ But however familiar Hitchens’ cultural conservatism is with the Book of Common Prayer, Clive of India, or the poetry of Housman , he’s not equipped for policy debates which require an understanding of social science. He doesn’t mention the terms ‘selection effect’ or ‘heritability’ once in the book, nor does he employ the same concepts implicitly. He didn’t grow up viewing /pol/ infographics, reading Lynn or Murray, or watching ‘race realism’ lectures on YouTube. To Hitchens, 1360 is just the beginning of the first peace of the Hundred Years’ War. Fee-paying schools had faced a direct threat from grammar schools after the Second World War. According to Wooldridge, the proportion of children attending fee-paying schools in England and Wales declined from 6.7 per cent in 1955 to 4.5 per cent in 1978. The public-school share of Oxbridge places fell from 55 per cent in 1959 to 38 per cent in 1967. In his memoir John Carey argued that “the grammar schools, had they survived, would by now have all but eliminated the public school contingent in Oxford and Cambridge, with far-reaching effects on our society”. Hitchens doesn’t appear to recognise that most private schools are also academically selective and parental income is just an additional selection factor, nor that these figures undermine the idea that private schools provide an unfair advantage to the children of the wealthy. They are also prima facie implausible. The citation directs the reader to the Department for Education report Revised GCSE and Equivalent Results in England: 2014 to 2015 . The summary document cites slightly different figures to Hitchens, so we’re left to search through the nine Excel files for the statistics he’s referencing. In Main National Tables, Table 3b, we find the relevant figures for grammar, comprehensive, and all mainstream state schools. The figure for independent schools does not appear anywhere here, but it does appear in a HoC briefing paper which quotes the same source, so I will grant Hitchens the benefit of the doubt. I went on to to teach in Comprehensives, for seven years, in East London, leaving to become a Chartered Certified Accountant in the Oil & Gas industry, and, owing to the paucity of education I encountered as a schoolteacher, I selected, by income, to put my own children through private schools, namely, Dulwich College and Alleyn's, (as I was not prepared to entrust their education to the state, for which my children remain ungrateful, indifferent to, and oblivious of what they avoided) where they both succeeded, academically, as far as the watered down syllabi allowed, with one of them graduating from a Russell Group University (Leeds), and the other eschewing university (which I think is a very good decision for most young adults today, particularly if it's not a Russell Group one), and relies on his well rounded social skills to make his way, along with a raft of mainly A and A* Grade GCSE O' and A' Levels.Thus goes the central argument and complaint of this book. It sees the destruction of the emerging grammar school system as an unforgiveable and irreparable act of cultural vandalism, which cannot simply be remedied by an expansion of the last remaining grammar schools. They are, the narrative goes, a pale imitation of what could have been achieved. Hitchens points to the declining share of Oxbridge entrants from independent schools after the introduction of the tripartite system: 62% percent before the Education Act 1944, falling to 45% on the eve of comprehensivisation in the mid-1960s. The representation of state (nearly entirely grammar) schools more than doubled in this period, from 19% to 34% (pp. 89-91), with the remaining places were filled by overseas students and students from direct grant schools. Recently, I've been invigilating in secondary schools, and was surprised to see how little content the GCSE O' and A' Level papers contain nowadays, even compared to when I was teaching 37 years ago, so I have to agree with Peter Hitchens, much against my hopes when I started reading this book, that there is little chance of Grammar Schools returning, in the form they used to exist, largely, but not only, because teachers of today have not been given the chance to obtain the necessary education themselves.
But Hitchens also hints at the greater purposes of education - cultural transmission and the pursuit of academic excellence - as ends in themselves. He is on stronger footing when arguing these goals can be better achieved by segregating kids by ability. How can one be taught the English canon when slower children take weeks to grapple with Shakespearean English, or be trained to compare theories of history when ignorant pupils need to be taught the basic facts of the Tudor Dynasty and the Second World War over and over again? He lists a working class hero who supported grammar schools (Eric James) and public school villains who closed them down (Anthony Crossland, John Vaizey, Brian Simon). For Hitchens, this is evidence grammar schools are in the material self-interest of the working class. I’m sceptical that support for academic selection splits along class lines as strongly as Hitchens does. The polling suggests that class does not correlate with support for grammar schools, 3 and Hitchens describes a Rugby educated Fabian, R.H. Tawney, as having ‘dealt beautifully and movingly’ with academic selection (p. 30) and Robert Pidley, son of a bus driver stonemason, as a ‘utopian comprehensive campaigner’ (p. 30) who provided ‘what many comprehensive supporters have seen as the clearest statement of their desire and belief’ (p. 31). Some of the flaws in the comprehensive model were understood at the time, and glossed over in the sunlit uplands promotion, but the extent of the potential damage seems not to have been realised, or if it was, it wasn’t considered a priority. Graham Savage, the civil servant who coined the term ‘comprehensive’, was inspired by American high schools whose aim was to produce good citizens rather than an educated elite. He admitted that academic standards would likely fall, but commented near the end of his life that they had fallen rather more than he had anticipated. However, this figure ignores the number of independent school pupils who sit ineligible iGCSE exams, which suppresses private school’s scores. The same summary document cautions thatNaturally, Hitchens largely ignores the Crowther Report of 1959, whose information was based upon much more comprehensive studies than those of Gurney- Dixon, including a detailed survey of all young men entering National Service between 1956 and 1958. In his conclusions, Crowther states flatly that “a majority of the sons of professional people go to selective schools but only a minority of manual workers’ sons do so” and he adds that “a non- manual worker’s son is nearly three times as likely to go to a selective school as a manual worker’s”. A key data point Hitchens relies upon, then, is based on corrupted data. Looking again at Table 3a of the same Excel file, we see that of the 71.7% of independent school pupils entered for GCSEs 64.2% achieve 5 A*-C grades (not necessarily including English and Maths) which equates to 89.5% of eligible pupils and exceeds the same statistic for comprehensive schools by 16.2% (69.3% of 97.2% is 67.4%). 2 A similar gap existed in 2006/07 when fewer independent schools used iGCSEs. And students from private schools dominate universities with high UCAS entry tariffs . Academic selection is a necessary tool to correct the market failure of independent schools. Parents spend large sums of money to send their children to independent schools in the belief that they will improve their children’s grades, university destinations and lifetime earnings. As shown above, such beliefs are irrational. The reason independent schools outperform their state counterparts is because the children who attend such schools are more talented, and will do just as well in a state school.
Hitchens also correctly suggests that grammars became an important issue under Harold Wilson because only a totalitarian regime could feasibly destroy private schools. Perhaps today’s resentment of the independent sector would not exist at the same level if the former options had been preserved. Indeed when Labour returned to government in 1974, they created more private schools than any government since the reign of Edward VI by forcing direct grant schools — a now extinct form of private school which was required to offer one-quarter of places to students whose fees were covered by the state — to become comprehensive or go private.
In presentational terms, the most noticeable effect of not reporting unregulated international GCSEs in the measures of attainment is seen in DfE’s headline performance measure of the percentage of eligible pupils achieving five or more A* to C GCSE or equivalent qualifications including English and maths; the reported performance of affected schools is 0% on this headline measure. The absence of unregulated international GCSEs from the headline measure almost exclusively affects the published results of independent schools. We estimate that this issue might have affected the reported performance of up to around one-third of independent schools and the reported performance of up to around two-thirds of pupils in independent schools . Public debate usually frames education as an investment, and questions how to improve the quality of schooling so that today’s children earn more as tomorrow’s adults, or how best spread the investment between social classes so that everyone has the same shot in life. Hitchens’ book continues in that tradition, but I have presented enough information to show that education likely has little effect on earnings and that reorganising secondary education into grammar schools will likely not spread opportunity or boost the earnings of pupils who attend. Reading the first two chapters one gets a sense of the depth of knowledge or research Hitchens can draw on. Any Zoomer or Millennial reading this is likely to learn a great deal about the history of the British left and the debate on academic selection which took place long before we were born. Based on my experience, it's been a long held falsehood that those who weren't selected for grammar school were devastated by the decision, and, as a consequence, had their lives blighted by this early "failure," and were condemned to having their schooling conducted in Secondary Moderns. The number of pupils in the state system rose from 5 million in 1946 to 7 million in 1960, causing the share of state pupils nationally to fall from 38% to below 30%, which strained public support. Labour endorsed comprehensive schools as early as 1951, when the tripartite era was in its infancy and the Gurney-Dixon Report had not yet been published. Hitchens reminds us that Thatcher was Education Secretary during much of the period of comprehensive reforms, though she was not a principal protagonist like those named above.
But recognising this ideological tension is important for understanding the reasons why grammar schools were abolished. As well as being unfair to less able or less privileged children, they were seen as barriers to the social engineering of a homogeneous community. The Pidley statement Hitchens references is ACCORDING to his widow, Anthony Crosland, the Labour education secretary from 1965 to 1967, once told friends: ‘If it’s the last thing I do, l’m going to destroy every last f***ing grammar school in England and Wales and Northern Ireland’.If true, he pretty much succeeded. Of the 1,298 grammars that existed at the time of that profanity, just a few hundred pale simulacra of these once formidable institutions now remain. This was, argues Peter Hitchens in A Revolution Betrayed, a grievous self-inflicted wound whose pain is still keenly felt. The arguments made by this book, and by others in the right-wing press, serve as an alibi for cash-strapped middle-class parents who want a better education for their children. I argue they should wear their prejudices openly, and demand the reintroduction of grammar schools for their own self-interest.A key factor in the bipartisan betrayal of the grammars was the Conservative s’ failure to expand them in advance of the wholly predictable strain they would come under as the “Baby bulge” reached schooling age in the 1950s. It is astounding how this fact is almost universally omitted from increasingly irregular rows over the issue in mainstream media.