From International Socialism, No.19, Winter 1964/5, pp.20-21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
John Crutchley’s article Education and Class (IS 17, Summer 1964) paints too black-and-white a picture. (‘The class function of the school is to fit the working-class kid for the factory or the office desk’ – ‘teachers’ reports ... reflect pure class bias’ – ‘The Robbins recommendations for greater equality in higher education [but not within the total educational system] and the overall expansion of technological and scientific education are aimed at reinforcing the present class structure of Britain’.) The kind of assertion exampled here punctuates the whole article, and the reader’s total impression is of a dark conspiracy of bureaucrat and teacher against the working-class child. While much of the article deals with important aspects of the education of working-class children and with the relationship between education and the state, the overall tone attracts too much attention to the conspiracy argument. At times the evidence called in to support this latter argument is so over-simplified as to lead to distortion. In his book and in his evidence to the Robbins committee, J.W.B. Douglas shows that the working-class child’s intelligence increases at grammar school, but declines relatively to the child from the middle-class home. Similarly, in the secondary modern school, children from both classes, on average, decline in intelligence; however, the working-class child tends to decline more rapidly than his middle-class counterpart. But Comrade Crutchley concludes: ‘The results showed quite conclusively that the intelligence of the working-class child declines throughout his years at school.’ The decline is relative, not absolute. Robbins is criticised in the article for recommending greater equality in higher education while omitting to say anything about the total educational system. But the Robbins Report is entitled Higher Education and consequently is unlikely to contain recommendations for the whole system! These objections are only details. A more fundamental objection has to be made to the relatively scant treatment given to the influence of the labour market on the educational system.
One has only to look a little further afield to realise that a capitalist economy does not of itself dictate a stratified educational system along British lines. In Sweden, children between the ages of 6 and 15 attend comprehensive, non-streamed schools, and when it does occur at 15 the specialisation only covers academic studies. In California, education is free to all up to the age of 22, and selection only occurs at 18, when students will go on to State University, State College or State Junior College. (However, there is no system of maintenance grants as there is in Britain.) The Robbins Report estimated that 48 per cent of 18-year olds in the USA in 1968-69 would undertake full-time higher education, and three-quarters of these would be doing courses of British degree level.  The above examples of educational provision are admittedly exceptional, but they illustrate the point that there is nothing inherently contradictory in this heavy expenditure on education for a capitalist economy. The relatively scabby educational provision in this country is a sign of the backwardness of British capitalism and of the impotent nature of its political agents. Therefore, if comparisons are to be made between educational systems, it is the more advanced capitalist countries that should be used as criteria. Is capitalism our educational fairy-godmother after all? Predictably, the answer is ‘No’, but it’s a long story.
Since World War Two the main determinant of educational structure has been the demand for increasing numbers of skilled technical and technological workers. During the war trends in labour demands, already perceptible pre-war, were speeded up considerably by the technological and organisational innovations brought about by a command economy. The census returns for 1931 and 1951 give an index of the increase in demand. Taking the tables for professional occupations, we find: in 1931 there were 35,600 engineers, 47,600 industrial designers and draughtsmen, and 7,900 laboratory assistants; in 1951 the figures were 107,400, 110,100, and 47,600 respectively.  In the US there are now as many non-manual as manual workers, and the same trend is visible in the UK. Such an increase in the demand for highly-trained labour could not but have violent repercussions on the educational system. Up to the war the grammar school had traditionally drawn its recruits from the middle-class and sent its products into office jobs. Secondary education of any kind was still closed to the working-class child, and he could expect to be in the factory by the age of 13. But the war exposed the inadequacies of this system as a provider of skilled labour for capitalism, and so secondary education was made compulsory for all, and it was made possible for grammar schools to expand and to recruit from the working class.
By allowing the ‘direct-grant’ grammar schools to take a proportion of fee-paying pupils, the 1944 Education Act left a loophole for the less intelligent children of the middle class, enabling them to avoid the stigma of the secondary modern school. The Labour Government turned a deaf ear to all arguments and conference decisions on the subject of comprehensive education, and by the end of its reign the teachers, the party members and the electorate had all been mickey-finned with ‘parity of esteem’. (I would agree with Comrade Crutchley about plots here. The plot was to prevent middle-class children from falling into the secondary modern, which is not the same as preventing the working-class children from getting into the grammar school.) The Local Education Authorities were left to organise secondary education, but their area of discretion was severely limited by the obvious academic disparities between the grammar school and the old ‘all-age’ school (soon to be the secondary modern); some form of selection was inevitable. If ‘parity of esteem’ had ‘been anything more than a catchphrase, some system of benignant quotas would have to have been introduced, to raise the standard of teaching conditions in the secondary modern school, but this was never on the cards. Within this framework, recruitment to grammar schools was based on ability as measured by the attainment and intelligence tests at the age of 11. Between the years 1946-51, 56 per cent of grammar-school entrants were the children of manual workers, despite the middle-class bias of the 11+ exams and the disadvantaged schools and homes of many such children. The ruling class did not have to concern itself with preventing working-class children getting to grammar school – as long as most middle-class children got in they were not worried about the source of supply of recruits to the grammar school. They did not worry about the class origins of the skilled workers they were turning out, as long as they were being turned out in sufficient numbers. That is why so much concern was exhibited by the Crowther and Robbins Reports about the high ‘early leaving’ rate among working-class grammar school children. As an investment, these early leavers were showing a poor return, so something ought to be done. (This is a crude version of the two reports’ comments – the Crowther Report especially shows anxiety for the educational fate of all children, while putting forward these economic arguments. Only socialists can sense the irony of the combination.)
Because the educational systems of capitalist economies are shaped by the demand for labour, distortions of educational ideals are inevitable.  Paper qualifications become meal-tickets and the teaching methods become geared to obtaining them. In order for degrees, diplomas and certificates to have value, some students must fail – the differentiation of the occupational structure demands a differentiation of students. At the same time, the job chances of the individual student are becoming more rigidly dependent on the length and quality of his educational career, thus intensifying ‘the pressure on the school. (Cf. the current demand for a Certificate of Secondary Education to differentiate secondary modern school-leavers.) Thus, instead of the shape and content of education being determined by the needs and capacities of the individuals ‘being educated, it is determined by the structure of the labour market under capitalism. The other side of the educational coin is this: by endeavouring to change the form and content of educations reformers and socialists are challenging the structure of ‘the labour market. The more emphasis that can be placed on the deficiencies of the schools as agencies for the development of individual people, the more publicly obvious will the present function of the school as a supplier of labour become. We can start by using the facts given in the Newsom Report, to make known the inequalities and deprivations that exist for the two-thirds of the 11-15 age-group who attend secondary modern schools. Because the majority of these children will become semi-skilled and unskilled workers, these schools have had little or no attention from the state. (The Newsom Report cost £5,000; Robbins cost £120,000.)
Comrade Crutchley states, ‘No educational reform, however radical, can act as a panacea while the productive forces of society perpetuate class inequalities.’ Agreed. But in our effort to change the existing class relationships, the exposing of educational inequality and attempts to get it reformed can raise the consciousness of the working class and bring about the end of capitalism.
1. Robbins Report, Table 19, p.46.
2. Taken from Social Conditions in England and Wales, Carr-Saunders, Jones and Moser, p.109.
3. See Russia: A Marxist Analysis, T. Cliff, pp.299-301, for a classic example.
Last updated on 6.9.2007