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New Left Review I/11, September-October 1961

Douglas Brown

Elite Education

we wear a uniform and everyone knows when you have passed to go to a grammar school.” He is a 12 year old and he has passed. He’s replying to one of the questionnaires that helped Frances Stevens [*] In the Living Tradition, Hutchinson, 35/- document with considerable and useful detail the life and ethos of our grammar schools. She ranged over a fair cross-section of schools, she observed and interviewed and freely questioned; she drew upon and was confined by her own experience (she has taught in grammar schools, has been a headmistress); and she offers both documentary and commentary. The first-hand report from teachers and taught is full and disquieting; the fullness alone would be grounds for drawing particular attention to the book here. But the author’s own lack of disquiet, her power to accumulate disconcerting evidence and show herself far from disconcerted—gratified, rather—gives her book a yet wider representative significance. Here, on record, is the grammar school ethos, the quality and intentions of its life, the purposes it serves, concealed and unconcealed. Not very much has been left out I find, when I call into play my own experience of the same ethos—though something has. But the commentary is quite another matter, and my own experience supports that hardly at all. The accumulations of evidence are invested with a quiet glow of approval; the author appears to be utterly without scepticism. And (as her book reveals her) she is untroubled about the life and nurture of most of our children: with the price that has to be paid from the time the rat-race begins (at seven) to the moment of failure for the great majority (at 11), and with the waste, even at the mere academic level, implicit in the general relegation (from 11 to 15)—a waste whose folly as well as inhumanity cannot now (since Crowther) be denied. As she disposes her evidence she raises here a doubt, there an objection: but these are not the fundamental ones, they are of the surface, manageable—and grammar school life offers plenty of surface to have fiddling little debates about. Her doubts are always of the kind that can be set aside; and in due course they are.

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Douglas Brown, ‘Elite Education’, NLR I/11: £3

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