Nothing is so likely to cause a dinner party to turn violent. In Britain, the question of the type of school parents choose for their children ranks with international terrorism and global warming as a topic that can inflame political passions and turn friend against friend. Or at least it does among the kinds of parents who think they have a choice about which schools their children might attend, kinds that correlate closely with those who give or attend dinner parties in the first place. For these disputes are overwhelmingly about social class, and they rest on the fundamental truth that in a class-divided society, education largely reflects, rather than corrects, patterns of socio-economic advantage and disadvantage.
The form taken by these disputes may be determined by Britain’s peculiar social and educational history, but the underlying principles are of far wider import and interest. What do we want schools to do for children? Do we think people develop and flourish best when educated with a cross section of their community, or do we think they are better served by being educated with those who are like them in terms of gender, ability, belief or social background? Do we want a common level of education to be available to all in a given society, regardless of region, religion or parental income, or do we think parents ought to be able to choose a school type from a diverse menu? Who do we think should decide what is taught in schools—teachers, parents, governments (local or national), philanthropists, commercial sponsors?
Melissa Benn has wrestled with these questions over many years, and has written or edited several books about them as well as campaigning locally and nationally in defense of public education. With School Wars she has written an exceptionally well-informed, cogent and spirited account of the debates over secondary education in Britain, while supporting her arguments with the findings of research about schools in the United States, Canada, Finland, Sweden and elsewhere. And the findings are unequivocal: by all important measures, she writes, “the best school systems are the most equitable—in other words students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. Conversely, schools that select students based on ability at an early age show the greatest difference in performance according to a child’s socio-economic background.” Over and over again, the data point to the conclusion that “education was not, nor could it be, the main engine of social change.” She can even cite for support the current Conservative minister for higher education, David Willetts, who caused something of a fuss in the right-wing press by announcing, when in opposition in 2007, that selective schools are not in practice a means of encouraging social mobility: “There is,” he said, “overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage. It does not spread it.” Benn’s commitment to the comprehensive ideal is clearly announced: “To enable the education of all children, side by side, seems to me a far richer definition of success, for both our education system and our society as a whole, than to take only the apparent winners, most of them from relatively affluent backgrounds, and educate them in separate, privileged enclaves, while condoning second-class facilities and resources for the unlucky majority.” But in practice, she laments, “Class stratification remains the default position, even in the twenty-first century.”
In the twentieth century, education, like almost everything else in Britain, was sharply divided along class lines. Before 1939 nearly 90 percent of the population attended state or denominational elementary schools and left at age 14. The upper and upper-middle classes educated their sons (and increasingly their daughters) at “public schools” (i.e., private schools), and a portion of the more academically able children of the middle class, plus a tiny number of scholarship-winning working-class boys, went to state-funded “grammar schools.” The first major change to this arrangement came with the Education Act of 1944, which instituted free secondary education for all children (the school-leaving age was raised to 16 over succeeding decades). But the 1944 act expressed a frankly meritocratic vision, sorting children into three ability groups by a national examination at age 11 (“the 11-plus”). Those identified as having the greatest intellectual potential got places at an expanded network of grammar schools; those with evident mechanical aptitude went to technical schools (though this part of the scheme never flourished); and the remaining 75 percent went to “secondary modern schools,” with the assumption in most cases that they would acquire few qualifications, leave at the earliest opportunity and be extremely unlikely to go to university. Neither the act nor the reforming Labour government of 1945–51 (which established the National Health Service and nationalized several major industries) addressed the existence of the public schools, which thus continued on their privileged way, relieving the wealthy elite of the obligation to have any firsthand experience of state education.