Good Schools

Tessa Blackstone

  • The Changing Anatomy of Britain by Anthony Sampson
    Hodder, 476 pp, £9.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 340 20964 X
  • An English Education: A Perspective of Eton by Richard Ollard
    Collins, 216 pp, £9.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 00 216495 7
  • Survival Programmes in Britain’s Inner Cities
    Open University, 224 pp, £6.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 335 10111 9
  • Liverpool 8 by John Cornelius
    Murray, 177 pp, £5.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 7195 3975 7
  • The Other Britain edited by Paul Barker
    Routledge, 276 pp, £9.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 7100 9308 X

There is probably even more ill-informed punditry around about our educational system and its contribution to Britain’s decline than there is about the trade unions, management and industrial relations. Everyone thinks he knows what schools should do. However ignorant about the practicalities of teaching in the 1980s, people are willing to launch forth into diatribes against our state schools for failing to do this, that or the other. There is an ever-increasing list of demands made on the schools, some of which conflict with each other, so that it is hardly surprising that some of them sag under the weight of it all. At the same time, their clients become more critical, more hostile to authority and less manipulable.

We expect our schools to turn out pupils who are literate and numerate. We expect them to give their pupils some experience and understanding of their cultural heritage. We want them to know something about science and technology, including the principles of computing and how to make use of the new technologies derived from the silicon chip. We expect them to prepare young people for the world of work and to provide good advice about the range of possible careers. Preparation for parenthood, for domestic roles and for citizenship all feature among the requirements. There is a clamour for multi-cultural education and for schooling which will improve the opportunities of girls later in life. The list is inexhaustible. In the background, there is a relentless refrain, like a drum that never stops beating, on the need to maintain academic standards. As if this were not enough, we hear our school system being blamed for Britain’s industrial decline and for the perpetuation of serious inequalities in the distribution of power, status and wealth.

Let us look at some of the progress that has been made over the last twenty years or so. First of all, the system has been considerably expanded both to take in the products of the boom in the birth-rate and to take in groups which previously did not benefit from education at all. Rapid expansion always puts strain on a system as it struggles to grow fast enough to accommodate increases in numbers. Yet that expansion took place relatively smoothly and without much evidence that quality was sacrificed to quantity. Difficult categories of young people have been incorporated into the system. For example, not very long ago, severely handicapped children were considered ineducable and were written off as such: this is no longer so. Large numbers of young people finished their education at the age of 15, never to return to any form of further education or training, full or part-time: this is no longer so. The school leaving age has been raised to 16, without the dire consequences predicted by some, and more recently the Youth Opportunities Programme has provided some post-school education, training and work experience, in an incredibly short space of time, for the ever-growing numbers of unemployed school leavers.

Secondly, our schools have become more sensitive to the needs of the ethnic-minority groups and of girls. Two decades ago the notion of multi-cultural education was virtually unheard of: children from minority groups were expected to assimilate the majority culture, with little attention paid to their own linguistic or cultural needs. The numbers of minority-group children have, of course, grown since then, as has the range of backgrounds from which they come. In the Inner London Education Authority alone there are 50,000 foreign-language speakers, covering 130 individual languages. The growth in the number of minority-group children has been a factor in forcing greater attention to their needs. But there has also been a change in attitude on the part of the authorities and of teachers. Two decades ago no one worried about the fact that a considerably smaller proportion of girls than boys was staying on at school and taking A Levels, or that girls were opting out of science subjects at the age of 14. Now there is concern about this, and steps are being taken to try to deal with the subtle and sometimes subconscious forms of discrimination that may have undesirable effects on girls’ aspirations.

Thirdly, there have been many changes to the curriculum to meet newly recognised needs. These include the introduction of important subjects such as health education, provision for minority-group languages such as Urdu or Gujerati, the expansion of social studies, a much wider range of sports activities and the introduction of computer science. There have been significant efforts to develop links between schools and industry, and there has been an expansion of vocational subjects for older pupils in secondary schools. At the same time, there have been many desirable adjustments to the curriculum for academic subjects, such as a broadening of the history syllabus to include more social and economic history and more world history or the inclusion of more modern literature in English and modern languages courses. What my own children have had the opportunity of learning at school has seemed much richer than the rather fuddy-duddy offerings of my own Fifties grammar-school education.

When future historians come to write the social history of the Sixties and Seventies I have little doubt that they will see it as a period of innovation and advance in British state education. However, they will also remark on the continuing survival of private schools for a small minority (about 5 per cent) of Britain’s children. And indeed it is this phenomenon of a small upper-middle-class élite, separately educated from the rest of the population, to which Anthony Sampson continually draws our attention in his fourth attempt at dissecting this country, The Changing Anatomy of Britain. Given the richness of what is on offer in our state schools, why do parents choose to spend large sums of money, sometimes at considerable financial sacrifice, to educate their children at fee-paying schools?

Sampson seems to think that the demise of the grammar schools is the key to explaining why the public schools have benefited, not only from continuing support, but also from something of a revival. There may well be something in this argument, for it is the independent day schools in particular, some of whose current pupils might have gone to grammar schools 15 years ago, which have recently been flourishing. To a large extent the old grammar schools protected the middle classes from contact with the hoi polloi. Comprehensives, which provide a common schooling for all regardless of ability or social class, do not, and elements of the respectable middle classes are frightened away from them because they appear to be predominantly proletarian institutions which lack the solid virtues of the Protestant ethic, including discipline and conformity. With hindsight, the Labour Party should perhaps have abolished the independent schools first, and introduced comprehensive schooling afterwards.

Social snobbery is still very pervasive in contemporary Britain. To be able to claim that one’s child is being privately schooled is to set oneself apart and to join a club to which most people cannot even aspire. This is not to say that there is not a substantial number of middle-class parents with a conscience who feel a little bit ashamed of segregating their children from the majority by sending them to private schools, and who are conscious of the divisiveness of segregated schooling. It is, however, a combination of snobbery, fear of the ‘bad influence’ of working-class pupils, and access to the élite through an academic education and knowing the right way to behave, that keeps the major public schools going. Moreover, many of these schools have been quite successful at adapting themselves to some of the requirements of modern society. They have followed the state schools in diversifying their curricula; they have introduced girls into the sixth form; and they have relaxed and reformed their rules about discipline or uniform.

The fact that the élite is so dominated by the products of a small number of boys’ public schools is a recurring theme in Sampson’s book. Presumably parents believe that this will continue to be the case and are therefore willing to risk damaging their son’s personalities and emotional development by sending them to single-sex boarding establishments such as Eton and Winchester. Most of us have amongst our close friends a number of men who freely admit the damaging effects which such institutions have had. As Sampson says, ‘Wykehamists invite caricature: intellectually highly developed and emotionally underdeveloped.’ Socialists, when attacking these schools, have perhaps concentrated too much on the privileges they confer, and not enough on the damage they may also do to individuals who went to them. And as Sampson points out, whilst the public – school system reinforces and perpetuates Britain’s class system, ‘the failure to communicate is a product not just of class arrogance but of the compensation for it – the element of public-school guilt which refuses to face up to the rough tactics of working-class leaders.’

It is, perhaps, a reflection of the hold which Eton has over Britain’s Establishment that a talented writer like Richard Ollard can devote a year or more of his time to a book about a single school during a short period of its history. Where else in the world could such a book be written and not gather dust at the back of old-fashioned bookshops? Ollard mentions in his preface that one of his colleagues had drawn his attention to the fact that in spite of the many books on Eton, there had not been one about the school in the period between the wars. Good heavens! For all its virtues – it is well-written, affectionate and not uncritical – I cannot imagine that this book will be of much interest beyond the charmed circle of those who went to this school over this period and of a few really obsessive Old Etonians who went there since.

Perhaps some day someone will write a history of Paddington Comprehensive School, Liverpool 8. I doubt it – but in some ways it would make a more interesting book than Ollard on Eton even though it could not claim Keynes, Orwell, Aldous Huxley or Harold Macmillan among its illustrious ex-pupils. Like many other inner-city comprehensive schools, it has experienced since it was founded the harsh consequences of many of the social and economic changes which Britain is undergoing and to which the private schools are largely unexposed. The collapse of employment in Britain’s ports and industrial cities, the disastrous errors of the plannersand architects in slum-clearance programmes, the acute poverty of the growing number of single-parent mothers in working-class areas, and the increasing bitterness of young blacks and Asians at the intolerance that surrounds them – all of this affects the lives of pupils and teachers in such schools. That they survive, and that the pupils manage to benefit from: their education – as most do – can sometimes seem like a miracle.

The reason why these schools do have successes is indirectly documented in a marvellous book by the Exit photography group entitled Survival Programmes in Britain’s Inner Cities. What emerges from the superb photographs, and from tape-recorded interviews with the urban poor, is the indomitable spirit and human warmth of these people. This is a moving document of the struggle for dignity against grinding poverty and exploitation in a largely indifferent society:

The crisis of our inner cities is linked to changes in the economy as a whole. Within the logic of our current system, the ‘rationalisation’ of industry involves hardship and deprivation for many people throughout the country, and particularly for those living in the old urban working-class areas whose industrial bases have vanished. The decay of these communities is a reflection of a widening national polarisation that is taking place between, on the one hand, an expanding affluent professional and managerial class and, on the other, a growing dependent ‘underclass’ of unemployed, retired and disabled people. The injustice and wastefulness of this process is, today, what the ‘inner city’ symbolises.

Many of the photographs are of children and young people, playing in condemned houses, eating in a chairless kitchen, sleeping three in a bed and asleep at their desks in the remedial class. The head of a primary school in the North-East recounts a conversation with the Chairman of the Education Committee, who asked whether the school was successful. His criteria for success turn out to be O and A-Level results. ‘Pie in the sky,’ replied the head. ‘If you look at my attendance chart, that’s the barometer of success in this school.’ And yet most children do attend most of the time.

What happens to them later? A few insights about that can be obtained from John Cornelius’s odd little book about Liverpool 8. Rather more can be discovered from the book edited by Paul Barker, The Other Britain. Liverpool 8 is a series of vignettes about people and places in and around Toxteth by a graduate of Liverpool Art College, who now teaches and lives in the area. It is copiously illustrated with his own drawings of the same people and places. What comes through most obviously is the extraordinary richness of life in the shops, schools, pubs and dives of this multiracial area in the midst of all the decay. In The Other Britain we get a clearer view of how some young people who belong to what Barker calls ‘the Britain of the underdog’ think and behave. However, the pieces about young people in this selection of articles from New Society tend to concentrate on the more deviant elements of working-class youth. They are also predominantly, though not exclusively, about young males.

The world they occupy is so distant from that of the boys from Eton and Winchester that they might almost be on another planet. What the latter have in common with the skinheads, punks, teeny boppers, football supporters and triple X boys is that they are part of a carefully fostered cult. Each cult has its own uniform, language, required forms of behaviour, and to some extent its own cult figures. What separates the public schoolboys from the rest is that their cult behaviour is legitimated by their teachers and the other adults around them: indeed it is nurtured by them. In the case of the working-class groups, their behaviour is often subject to disapproval from teachers, parents and other adults. The New Society pieces refrain from such judgments. Barker correctly identifies the tone as ‘rational, humane, unsectarian, unsnobbish’. Occasionally, one longs for a little more analysis and a little more prescription.

It would be good to know more from these writers about how they think adults, who have responsibility for these young people, can best handle and respond to them. How can the many improvements in our schools be made more available to them? This is a most difficult question to answer, but it is one to which educationalists must come back again and again. It is a much more important question than some of those to which Anthony Sampson refers – such as how to reform Oxford and Cambridge so that their prejudice against entrepreneurs, against change and innovation, boldness and decisiveness, can be destroyed. This is not to suggest that the reform of these two institutions is irrelevant to our educational system or indeed to the future of Britain. As Sampson spares no effort to tell us, they have as important a role in the education of the British Establishment as the major public schools do: ‘The Oxbridge influence would be less worrying if it were only one élite of many with different values and ambitions.’ The trouble is that it stands alone in the pervasiveness of its network and style. Moreover, any suggestion that its effects have been unfortunate – as in the leaked Labour Party document on Post-School Education – produces howls of outrage and articles in the quality press from elderly Oxbridge figures who epitomise much of what is wrong.

One of the things which must change in our educational system is the way we distribute resources. As long as we continue to concentrate so many resources on the élites who pass through the sixth forms to the universities (of which Oxbridge is at the apex in terms of per capita expenditure), we will fail to treat many young people fairly. We will also contribute to the perpetuation of inequality and class distinction in the wider society. The headmaster of one of the older public schools deplored the lack of resources going to state education in a recent speech. The more cynical might interpret his speech as a clever form of advertising to middle-class parents worried that their children might be inadequately educated in the state schools. A kinder interpretation might be that this headmaster was genuinely concerned about the plight of his colleagues in the state system. If that is the case, one radical solution would be for him to take his argument further and advocate the abolition of the private schools, so that their resources might be used by the state sector. Easily the most valuable of these resources would be the pressure that powerful and influential parents, whose children now attend private schools, would exert to improve state schools. But perhaps that would be asking too much from the headmaster.