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Why the left campaigned for comprehensive schools in the 1950s and 1960s

In Uncategorized on March 16, 2017 by kmflett

Mind your Grammar: Theresa May and the 1950s

While schools are being starved of funds by the Tory Government and those in urban areas with Labour Councils in particular face significant cuts, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced funding in the Budget for new grammar schools.

Theresa May is a confirmed enthusiast for grammar schools and it is part of her personal history. She attended a grammar school in Oxfordshire, where her father was a vicar, from the late 1960s and while she was a pupil the school became a comprehensive after a local authority reorganisation.

Grammar schools had been part of a tri-partite system of education introduced by the 1944 Butler Education Act. Butler was a Tory but had consulted widely on the contents of the Act which aimed to set the framework for a new education system at the end of the Second World War.

The Act was implemented by the 1945 Attlee Government and provided for Grammar Schools, Secondary Technical Schools and Secondary Schools. The decision as to which secondary school a pupil would attend was made by pupils sitting an 11+ exam. Hence the future life chances of many were determined at that age. The Grammar School could be the route to University and a successful career, while the secondary modern school indicated a life of often poorly paid manual labour. It was without doubt a class system of education, albeit one allegedly based, because of the exam, on a meritocracy.

The 1944 Act did allow for comprehensive schools, taking in pupils of all abilities, and some of these were set up in the years that followed.

The left in particular campaigned for a move to a fully comprehensive school system. The 1944 Act consigned many able working class students to the academic scrap heap simply because they failed an exam at 11 years old. It did the same for numbers from better off backgrounds too.

The unfairness and inequality of this inspired the left but capitalism itself was changing. The economy required more skilled workers and the Robbins Report in 1963 led to a wave of new Universities to meet the expanding requirement for graduates in the post-war economic boom.

The push for comprehensive schools to provide a greater number of University entrants also met that economic need.

The most prominent of the campaigners for comprehensive education were Caroline Benn and a Marxist Professor of Education Brian Simon. The campaign often met in the office of Benn’s partner, Tony.

The election of a Labour Government in 1964 with a modernising agenda meant the way was clear for a move to comprehensive education. Under new Education Secretary Anthony Crosland the Department of Education’s Circular 10/65, issued in July 1965, underlined a clear preference for comprehensive schools.

The DES however had no direct power to order Local Authorities to move away from the tri-partite model. What Government did have was funding.

With a post-war boom in childbirth Local Authorities were faced with providing more schools and DES circular 10/66 made it clear that funding for these would only be forthcoming if the schools were comprehensives.

This policy lasted until the election in 1970 of a Tory Government with new Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher countermanding it in favour of allowing a few hardline Tory areas to stick with grammar schools.

Yet by then the switch to Comprehensive education was well underway. In 1970  Caroline Benn and Brian Simon published Halfway There, a 600 page report on progress towards a fully comprehensive system which appeared as a Penguin paperback book.

The history of why and how the comprehensive school came about is well worth remembering as Theresa May tries to turn the educational clock back to the 1950s.

A version of this post appeared in the Morning Star 15th March 2017

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