it was the Taunton Commission of 1867, describing its own proposals for the three-tiered division of education, which commented: “It is obvious that these divisions correspond roughly, but by no means exactly, to the gradations of society”. Today, the correspondence is less exact, but it remains true that the education system both reflects and helps to perpetuate the existing class structure.
Has the education system, then, been impervious to change? There has in fact been persisrent pressure from many quarters. There has been the real and continuing pressure for an extension of education, which culminated in the provision of secondary education for all in the 1944 Act. Parallel with this, there has been a genuine, if confused, growth in the idea of educational equality—but this has been all too easily reconciled with the “tripartite system” which the Act offered. Changing social patterns have placed the system under considerable stress —and here it has yielded most ground. There is the simple and stark pressure of numbers: the “bulge” has become a step in the general population structure, steadily increasing proportionally the number of children and young people. The peak of this trend will not occur until 1965—the worst is still to come and, with the swing towards younger marriages, will continue in some form throughout this half of the century. There has also been the distinctive “trend” towards staying on longer at school.
By far the most direct force of change has been the social and technical consequences of modern industrial society. There has been the steady rise in the general importance of being properly qualified for the job. Not only are there now more jobs for which some qualification is required, but there are many more jobs where no specific expertise is asked for, but where a higher general standard of education is necessary. The same requirements for “general education” have been spreading rapidly over a much broader occupational field. People of good intelligence who used to spend their lives in middling occupations because of poor education now rise more rapidly, via the grammar school and further education, into the professional classes. There has been a general upgrading of the sort of post that is filled by any given level of intelligence. Generally, the proportion of technical and professional people in the labour force has expanded, and the social intake, through the grammar schools, widened. The growing complexity of administration and technology has quickly increased the importance, status and esteem of educational qualifications. Selective education is still, of course, the education of a minority—an elite. The assumption in maintained schools, the Crowther Report comments, is “that all boys and girls alike go to undiffrentiated primary schools, and that from the age of eleven onwards all go to a modern school unless they can show cause to the contrary.” But the elite is more broadly based, socially, and the openings to rise in the social-occupational structure more numerous. Even according to its own standards—intelligence testing at eleven—working class children are still heavily underrepresented in grammar schools, and middle class
In spite of all the changes, the British system of education is much more accurately adjusted to the new class-and-occupational structure than any comparable system. It is to the continuity of this “correspondence” that we owe the crippling division, denied in different ways in the American, Soviet and Scandinavian systems, between the “academic” and “non-academic” child, and hence the system of apartheid in schools between grammar and modern, and hence the emphasis upon streaming and selection at eleven. It is true that the intention of the 1944 Act was to “afford for all pupils opportunities for education, offering such a variety of institutions and training as may be desirable in view of their differing ages, abilities and aptitudes” (our italics). No question of superiority or inferiority was involved here, though the Act did accept the questionable principle of different schools for different aptitudes. But selection was justified as a convenient—if questionable—way of sorting the “aptitudes” between the “institutions”. In practice, however, inferiority or superiority is implied—failing the eleven plus is a lesson which a majority of our children learn before adolescence.