In the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’, Herod of Judaea ordered that the first-born male in every family be put to the sword, as a result of being warned that a rival leader of the people was about to be born. In postwar Britain, state education succeeded where Herod most conspicuously failed by selecting out a significant proportion of the academically most able working-class children—many of them first-born males, too—and sending them to selective grammar schools where they were estranged from their own families (and therefore their own class) and disinherited from their political and cultural traditions. The full story of the huge cultural swathe which the grammar school system cut through British working-class life and politics has never been written, yet it could be argued that it was one of the most effective pre-emptive attacks on the possibility of a popular working-class socialist politics in this century, and was achieved with hardly a murmur of resistance.

As Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden showed in their study of 88 working-class grammar school children in Huddersfield, footnote1 in many politically conscious working-class families a place for their child or children at grammar school was seen as one of the benefits of post-war Labour reconstruction. For though the 1944 Education Act which brought in the tri-partite system—grammar, technical and ‘modern’—was actually passed by the Coalition Government of 1944, it came to be seen as part of the 1945 Labour Government programme, along with the National Health Service and other modernizing pieces of state legislation. It is true that the impossibility of combining ‘equality’ with ‘selectivity’ had been argued in the Labour Party, but ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson as Minister of Education, and George Tomlinson her successor, were adamant defenders of the grammar school or selective system of which they were both products.

For the 1959 Crowther Report on 15–18 education, the working class was a hidden ‘pool of ability’ which had as yet remained unfished. footnote2 If the nineteenth-century proletariat was merely ‘hands’ for production, as Marx wryly noted, then in the twentieth century it was a new source of ‘brains’. The clever ones had to be sorted out, particularly the boys, and this was achieved by the ‘11 plus’ examination which swept through hundreds of thousands of homes each year like an icy wind, and which in many places destroyed the cementing ties of family and class relationships, literally dividing families and friends against each other, sometimes for ever. For many working-class children, success was actually the beginning of their problems. Whereas, as one sociologist commented at the time: ‘For middle-class parents, in particular, eleven-plus day is a day of national mourning. Like King Aegeus they sit on the cliffs, waiting to see if the returning sails are white or black.’ footnote3 The political or cultural effects of the annual gleaning (or cull, depending on one’s point of view) were hardly ever questioned.

In this period educational discourse was dominated by the vocabularies of social engineering and positivist psychology. And contemporary British socialism strongly identified with such vocabularies. As Harold Wilson said quite explicitly in a television interview in 1967: ‘If there is one word I would use to identify modern socialism it is science.’ footnote4 He also stated rather earlier than this that ‘the grammar schools will be abolished over my dead body’. Children’s abilities were measured only by the results they could achieve on Schonell, Wechsler, Moray House, Stamford-Binet and other ‘objective’ intelligence tests. Their intelligence was regarded as a national resource to be aggregated and then directed in whichever way the needs of the economy pointed. The notion of a ‘brain drain’—British scientists going to work abroad—became a national cause for alarm in the early 1960s as Britain prepared for its very own technological revolution (and failed). The very concept testified to some image of a glutinous national pool of ‘grey matter’ that could be tapped or drained. Because the pool needed enlarging, more working-class children were selectively educated so that they could add to the national resource. In an essay called ‘The New Model Bourgeoisie’, published in the Conservative journal Crossbow in 1962, the right-wing ideologue Charles Curran wrote of ‘an army of young men and women . . . a parvenu elite picked for their brains’. footnote5 Frances Stevens’s study of the post-war grammar school generation was aptly called ‘The New Inheritors’. footnote6 Such was the process by which a large number of the most intellectually able working-class children were won for the Conservative political project, a process which is being fully harvested today. As Jackson and Marsden stated in 1962: ‘The main bulk of the parents were Labour . . . with the children there has clearly been a considerable shift of sympathy—65% to 73% were against the Labour Party, the traditional political voice of the working class.’ footnote7 Not only was this new elite politically mobile, it was geographically mobile too. Within a few years of leaving grammar school—to go on to some form of higher education or into work—61 of the 88 Huddersfield children had left their home town and settled elsewhere, thus confirming the absolute nature of the break they had made with both class and community.

Because of the sheer fecundity of working-class intelligence in terms of numbers, it never mattered if large amounts of this national resource were squandered or wasted. Thus, having recruited increasing numbers of working-class children into the grammar schools at the age of 11, the system often quickly streamed them into lower grade sets and used them as a kind of ballast whereby middle-class children could be encouraged to rise higher. Stream was set against stream and working-class children were often used as pace-makers who, in the last laps of the race, would fall behind to allow the even more able middle-class children to surge forward and win. In streamed schools it was standard practice for many teachers publicly to compare classes against each other ‘pour encourager les autres’: ‘Well I hope 4a are going to do a lot better than 4d , the class I’ve just come from teaching . . .’ ‘Come on 3 Beta, otherwise some of you are going to have to go down into a lower class.’ footnote8