“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 Stevensfootnote* 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.
I believe there is something significantly representative in this capacity to dispose a formidable body of evidence about the grammar schools, and at the same time to repudiate it; or to interpret it with a blurring unimaginative generosity such as leaves an unfocussed impression. I have heard professed socialists admire the grammar schools—as “open to all”, as “offering a chance to the unprivileged”, as “representing ideals of scholarship” and so on. And sometimes the same people will go on to attack the “public schools”—not sensing that these are only the grammar schools writ large and writ venerable, and based in a more open, but not in any fundamentally different, style of selection. We shall certainly not much disturb the present forms of our society if we eliminate the public schools and leave the grammar schools to flourish. For quite a high proportion of our grammar schools have by now assimilated the “ideals” and manners of the public schools—these have long been the effective model. The norm is established by now, a norm primarily of a social kind: and it will continue so long as the élite school continues. There is a line of continuity running uninterruptedly from Eton (or Harrow or Winchester or wherever) through the schools perched uneasily on the periphery of the Headmasters—Conference (the Club) to those just outside it and awaiting admission; from those to the once-independent grammar schools and the direct-grant-aided ones, standing in varied favoured relationships with their local authority; and thence to the authority’s own grammar schools. These last, at the far end of the line, frequently compensate for their inferior status by specially eager and sedulous pursuit of the customs and costumes (where feasible) of schools higher up the ladder. It is, indeed, my own experience (and the paradox is only apparent) that in the public or grammar schools sufficiently established not to experience urgent pressures towards higher status, you get staff rooms and sixth form rooms where the real situation can be more candidly appraised, and where socialist insights can obtain more naturally, and not seem merely treacherous or Outrageous or Very Young.
Frances Stevens’s acceptances spring, I suspect, from deep in longstanding habits of thought and feeling, and widely shared ones. She sees all this and she has learned to like what she sees. And of course the grammar school milieu has its attractive side: especially to those who have sealed off from consciousness the primary schools and the secondary modern schools. It is a world of able and intelligent children on whom the world has set its first seal of approval. They have passed.
They pass. He drifts inevitably into the eleven plus or O Level jargon. (Not that these are searching.) Let’s go back to the voices of the children. Of course our scepticism should alert us here too, as we listen. We should have our doubts about twelve and fourteen year olds writing confidential answers to questionnaires under kindly and encouraging eyes. It will be, for some, an invitation to test out attitudes rather than to give themselves away. For others (sucking pens) there will be the impulse to trundle out halfremembered, half-understood formulae whenever the question asked doesn’t really meet them. But let scepticism have full play, and still a degree of authority makes itself felt. I don’t pretend that my first culling is representative. For one thing, conformity (in this milieu) is much more articulate than non-conformity, and occupies proportionately more space. But the honourable intentions of this book are sufficiently vindicated by its inclusion of voices like these. They serve to mark something important about its documentation. To savour them should invite many to some further analysis of the best chapters.
These come from a chapter that presents childrens’ comments on their school, home and lives, with a minimum of comment. There’s much talk of the grammar school as a “social solvent” both in this book and among people of varied political outlook. A study of the first hand evidence here will help anyone to see better what kind of a solvent, and what is absorbing who. The kind of case made out for the grammar schools here—and it is typical—rests partly on the social solvent formula; and partly on a notion of an ideal of “learning”, of “disciplined endeavour” supposed to be peculiarly the grammar school’s. Neither answers centrally to grammar school life and manners, either as here documented, or as I have known or heard of them myself. The solvent is a process of absorption. A small minority is allowed in from social sources other than those approved and intended; shy, unformed, ill-atease, possibly recalcitrant, it learns to conform, to belong to the dominant group. It’s the familiar technique whereby privilege maintains itself: where disquiet or a bent for change reveal themselves, invite a few representatives into the Club and absorb them, give them the new characteristics and outlook. There need be no change. As for the disciplined endeavour, that can be real all right (nor does it necessarily need a grammar school to be real in, it’s a natural function of genuine education at any stage: you encounter it as readily in a good primary school and a good technical college.) It can be real; in the grammar school milieu it can equally, and often, be a matter of routines pertinaciously adhered to, but having only accidental relation to education, growth or nurture. The book before us certainly does little to explore the “learning” so venerated. But there are scattered remarks from children, like the one already quoted (“. . . will back me up in my school work and help me get as far up in the world as I can . . .”) and there are asides from teachers, that suggest home truths bearing upon that “learning” in ways more disconcerting than the author herself has allowed for.