The tripartite system of secondary education, inaugurated in 1944, has been partially eroded throughout the fifties and early sixties. ‘Parity of esteem’ notoriously proved a synonym for ‘some are more equal than others.’ The comprehensive schools, the Leicestershire, Croydon, West Riding and Stoke experiments and proposals were explicit condemnations of the system. One by one, less outspoken lea’s have dropped the 11 plus and substituted interviews or Heads’ reports. A pep statement on secondary moderns in 1956 had run: ‘there is the biggest category of average pupils with no discernible special bent who are most likely to be employed in repetitious jobs requiring little special skill’. The work of Jackson, Marsden, Floud, Halsey, Bernstein and others brought into the open the assumption behind the system and comments like this. The ‘average pupils’ of the secondary modern are most frequently working-class children. Government Reports phased out these comments in the late fifties, instead alluding to the prospect of automation and the need to educate everyone for leisure. But leisure is largely conceived as a classless limbo, a comfortable basking in private, domestic security. This sort of leisure, like industrial work, has both its producers and its users. The class content of our educational system has now been fairly effectively exposed.

Less attention has, however, been paid to another incipient division. The end of the fifties saw a sudden florescence of articles and letters in the press on the role of women’s education. The Crowther report urged education for motherhood. In 1960, M. L. Jacks, Director of the Department of Education at Oxford wrote to the Sunday Times: ‘oneway in which women can play the part which is particularly theirs in fostering peace may well be by leaving men’s jobs for the men . . .’ George Taylor, Chief Education Officer for Leeds, called for ‘a new generation of feminists who will insist that women’s higher education should be related to the social pattern of today and tomorrow’.

The recent lucubrations of Sir John Newsom in the Observer extolling a future of cultivated quartet-playing wives and mothers have now provoked a major controversy. Newsom’s sexual apartheid apparently contains no social hierarchy. His women can’t be over 30 nor fit their pianos into anything less than a suburban semi-detached. His generalized finishing-school education is a clear attempt to make women ‘feminine’ in the same way as the secondary modern helped to make the working-class ‘workers’: ‘. . . . in addition to their needs as individuals, our girls should be educated in terms of their main social function—which is to make for themselves, their children and their husbands a secure and suitable home, and to be mothers . . . Girls must be taught the right subjects . . . because . . . women are biologically and psychologically different from men.’

These classically reactionary banalities found their predictable conclusion in the fantasies of Martin James, who continued the controversy: ‘women’s apparent illogicality is really a devious logic which is a delight—both to themselves and their men. It is, in fact, just as consecutive and sensible in its own way as conceptual rationality based on secondary process and secondary education. Women’s logic has, however, quite another point of departure: the logic and rationality of art, dream, illusion and what Freud called “the primary process”, in thinking (pictorial and unconscious). It is rooted in children’s thinking and is near to the emotionality which provides much of the colour in life.’

Ideologies like these to some extent create their own evidence, of course. A large number of girls in, and before, the fifth form are probably primarily interested in marriage; random citations of women frustrated in their academic grammar schools or institutions of higher education have their own plausibility. Neurotic assertions of frivolity are common enough, but indicate little more than woman’s need to assert her femininity because she is nothing else (comparable to the phenomenon of Momism in the usa). All this is familiar. The antediluvian prejudices of Newsom and others offer no new variations on the oldest and most vulgar idées reçues. What makes them important, however, is not any intrinsic interest, but the context in which they now appear.

A fractionally larger number of girls than boys gets to grammar schools. Probably the greatest difference in the sixties was recorded in Hampshire where girls exceeded boys by 112 places. Only 30 per cent of grammar schools are coeducational (the same figure as before the war) and most of these are in rural areas. Yet, though this can hardly matter if schools are segregated, at least five county councils have considered (and some implemented) the giving of ‘handicap’ grades to boys at 11 in order to equalize the number in grammar schools. However, in the university year 1962–63, 73.7 per cent of students were men, 26.3 per cent were women. This figure shows an increase in women undergraduates of exactly 3 per cent since 1938. In the intervening years it fluctuated around this mark. This is a marginally lower percentage of women students than in France, Sweden and West Germany, but slightly higher than in other advanced capitalist countries. What is striking about all these countries is the stability of the percentage over a period of approximately 25 years. The ominous exception is the usa, the most developed capitalist country of all. In the usa the percentage has substantially decreased, and even within this decrease there is evidence that greater and greater numbers of women are choosing courses that will be useful for marriage and maternity, not for a career. With a structural unemployment running at 6 million a year, the American economy is likely to have less work to offer women. In Europe this is not yet the case. The British economy still suffers from periodic labour shortages. This is implicitly recognized in an abject coda to the recent discussion:

‘Higher education is based on the assumption that it will be a continuous process at least to the age of 21, for medical and research students to the middle of the 20’s; for women such a long process at this stage of their life is quite inappropriate and is, in itself, the cause of some discrimination against the admission of women to medical schools and other courses. Indeed, one wonders how far an increase in the number of women in higher education would be acceptable to older male students who rely on their working wives for a more comfortable life than is possible on a grant.’ (George Taylor in the Guardian).