there is now considerable discontent brewing about education. It arises from many different quarters—among teachers and administrators (Cf. the recent controversy in The Observer between Mr. Amis and his colleagues and Dr. Petersen), academic authorities (Cf. the reports of several recent conferences), parents (Cf. the recent PEP pamphlet, Parents’ Views On Education, 3s. 6d.) and students (see Oxford Opinions below). Only the Labour Party remains sweetly oblivious.
The common thread which link these different aspects is the continuing existence of a two-tiered, two-class structure. Luck, sweat, scholarships and grants may all provide ladders or switch-points, by means of which young men and women may, at some point in their education, shift from one stream to another. But these ameliorative measures cannot disguise the central fact that, in secondary as in further education, there is a “high-road” and a “back-door”; and the standards which apply or the resources which are set aside differ, depending upon which stream you are in, as sharply as they do in, say, our provision in old age.
In the last ten years, parallel with other shifts in the patterns of class relations in our society, the gap between Grammar School and Public School has been narrowing, the chasm between the Secondary Modern and the rest widening. The Public School boy may still have an edge over his competitor from the top Grammar Schools, because of those indefinable social virtues bred in the ethos of the Public School, which are still considered recommendations in themselves, both at Oxbridge and in industry: but generally, the pattern of recruitment to university, and thence to business and industry, has been widened to admit the best of the Grammar school output more or less directly into some quarter or other of the meritocracy. The way there may be harder: it is often an interlocking grind of examination and results, weeding and creaming, application, cramming and narrowing specialisation—but, so far as the “job-opportunities” are concerned at the end of the process, it is well worth it.
There has been, of course, some improvement in the provision made for those who take the back-door route: many of the new Secondary Moderns are models of architectural planning, smooth, spacious amalgams of glass and steel. But the education which goes on inside these constructs is still a second-class education by any standards—a filling-station rather than a forcinghouse. A very small minority of those who have been creamed into this stream will slip through, by means of the Technical College, the Teacher Training College, the Art School or the Apprenticeship, into the ranks of the trained or skilled technician: but the vast majority will count their days through cookery classes and technical drawing until the wished-for release at fifteen.
There are factors at work which might, in the coming months, somewhat alter this picture: but they will have little to do with education. What can only be called “sputnik-mania” (the drive for more technologists), working steadily along the upward population curve, may enforce some extension of the Technical School: but it will have no effect upon the technical curricula of the Secondary Moderns, which is, at the moment, merely a training in the most primitive and rudimentary skills, learned by most children by the age of thirteen, and containing no intellectual discipline, challenge or excitement whatever.
The universities, too, will expand—but nothing will be done to bridge the apalling gap which exists between the university and the rest—that
The argument has been bedevilled by the question of educational “thresholds”. Thus Mr. Amis, arguing correctly in a recent Observer against Dr. Petersen’s line (that in order to encourage more people into the university, the curricula should be made more “practical”) nevertheless assumes that we are somewhere near the “threshold” of talent in the society. The same argument is repeated by those who defend the Grammar School against the Comprehensive. Yet there is no evidence whatever to suggest the existence of a natural “threshold” of this kind. It is a circular, self-imposed, self-defeating definition. If a threshold does exist, it is one which we have, quite arbitrarily, created ourselves. That there is no known substance in the argument is clearly shown in the study of “potential ability” published in the Second Part of the Crowther Report, and admirably commented upon by Mrs. Jean Floud, in the most recent issue of Forum (Education Department, Leicester University). These arguments could be validated by any honest Secondary Modern teacher, who knows that the “educational capacity” of first-year children in his “D” Stream class is a variable which alters in direct proportion to the number of desks in his classroom.