He both wants to go back and yet thinks he has gone beyond his class, feels himself weighted with knowledge of his own and their situation, which hereafter forbids him the simpler pleasures of his father and mother. And this is only one of his temptations to self-dramatization.

Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy

In the Conservative home grammar school offered an educational release from cramping conditions of working-class life; in the Socialist home it seemed to promise the long-awaited consummation.

Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden, Education and the Working Class

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.