By 1870 the churches could no longer afford to build still more schools especially in the urban areas.  Government would have to become involved.  Consequently, the 1870 Education Act established locally-elected School Boards, authorised to raise funds through local taxes to build and maintain non-denominational elementary schools for children up to the age of fourteen when most would proceed to apprenticeships.  The School Boards with their locally elected trustees attracted a lot of interest, and loyalty.  This could have become democracy in practice.  Able to raise money from taxes rather than from the church collection plate, board schools started to extend their curriculum beyond the three Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic to include science, technology, some creative arts subjects, and modern languages.  By the 1890s so popular had these schools become that an increasing number of pupils enrolled for more advanced studies and were keen to remain in school up to the age of sixteen and possibly beyond.

Such growth in popular, rate-supported education, offended the public schools with their belief in the superiority of the classical curriculum.  This led to scare stories that such a ‘modern’ approach to education would undermine English society.  It is a paradox that while industry led to England’s economic preeminence in the nineteenth century, those very men who were responsible for it were so embarrassed by the nature of where they had come from, that they did all in their power to deny the significance of technology to the well-being of the country.

This reached a climax in the Parliament of 1902 (elected by a franchise composed of only 60% of the country’s adult male population) which voted to prevent elementary schools from teaching pupils over the age of fourteen, so vastly reducing the opportunity for people to study technological subjects.  The arguments had been intense as the Establishment dug itself in.  If you vote against the all-through elementary school, Herbert Asquith, soon to become Prime Minister, told the Commons, “You will put an end to the existence of the best, most fruitful and the most beneficial educational agencies that ever existed in this country.”  Instead Parliament proposed to create a number of rate-supported grammar schools for that minority of fourteen-year-olds deemed suitable for further academic study.  Nothing, a hundred years ago, was to be provided for ‘the non-academic’ (a horrible English expression).  And here was the eventual rub, something that still plagues us in the twenty-first century.  When searching for an appropriate grammar school curriculum to serve largely working-class children, the Office of Education (its officials drawn exclusively from the public schools) chose a model based closely on the classical curriculum of the public schools with very little science, and even less technology.  Academically able working-class pupils were taught to think and act as if they were associate – though always inferior – members of a public school, wearing uniforms (which made them stand out a mile from their less-able friends), and playing rugby, not soccer, as a measure that they were now upwardly mobile and would quickly disassociate themselves from their local communities.

So it was that in 1938, twelve months before the beginning of the Second World War, only 18% of English fourteen-year-olds were still in school, one of the lowest figures for any of the so-called advanced countries.  Grudgingly and with no great enthusiasm, the War Cabinet assigned to R. A. Butler the task of setting up a national secondary education system.  Winston Churchill placed one condition on Butler – absolutely nothing should be done to disturb the status of the public schools.  What a post-1944 education system would look like teased Butler’s imagination.  Here, once more, the influence of the classical curriculum view of education came to the fore – which isn’t surprising when it is realised that out of the seventy leading figures in the administration of education between 1870 and 1963 sixty-three had been educated in public schools.  Such men knew more about Plato than they did about technology, child development or the relationship of the environment to intelligence.  Consequently, the 1944 Education Act defined a tripartite system of secondary education, based quite literally on Plato’s explanation of there being three kinds of pupils – the bright, the technological, and the plodders.  Trying to put a contemporary scientific gloss on this, Butler and his Parliamentarian colleagues allowed themselves to be convinced by proselytizing psychologists and psychometricians, that intelligence tests could be devised which, if administered at the age of eleven, could accurately predict which pupils should go to which kind of school.  For twenty years English education was haunted by the fear of the Eleven Plus exam, an assessment system which we now know misplaced up to 20% of the population.

The legacy of the Eleven Plus exam lives on in the school buildings that we can see to this day.  Because middle-class children appeared to do better in the Eleven Plus most Post-War grammar schools were built in residential areas, while most secondary modern schools were placed in working-class areas.  Furthermore grammar schools had a building allowance half as much again as the secondary moderns.  We no longer call them by those names but sixty years later, their origins are starkly obvious in their design, and no amount of fresh paint and billboards can disguise their very different expectations.  One looks a place of distinction while the other is a utilitarian assemblage of classrooms scattered around staff car parks.

Tragic as all that was there was a still greater tragedy.  For very good child-development reasons public schools have consistently maintained thirteen and a half as the appropriate age of transfer.  Butler understood that in 1944  but with only the money to provide for compulsory education up to the age of fifteen what could he do?  He was constrained by the decision taken in 1902 to rule against all-through schools (like those now found in Finland, the country with the highest scores in the OECD) preferring to accept the public schools’ assumption that young children should be kept away from the serious work of secondary education.  Butler compromised – he lopped three years off the elementary school curriculum and transferred it to the new four-year secondary school.  No research that I know of suggests that eleven is a good age for transfer –many youngsters never settle into secondary schools.  But even more seriously, from 1944 onwards the new primary schools were expected to do in six years what the old elementary schools had done in nine and in most cases it just couldn’t be done.  Now in 2008 primary schools are constantly blamed for not achieving that which the compromise of 1944 made virtually impossible.

It took the country twenty years to recognise the stupidity of such a tripartite system of secondary education.  Neither Conservatives nor Labour could think of anything better in the mid 1960s than to create an English equivalent to an American community high school, a comprehensive school that it was thought would satisfy all children.  But England is not America, and what might have been a highly appropriate solution in 1902, and might just have worked in 1944, was now totally out of step with the social expectations of the 1960s and ‘70s.  Put simply the comprehensive school sought to undo the damage wrought by intelligence tests and to improve the opportunity for those children coming from deprived backgrounds.  Comprehensives sought to capitalise on the sense of local community and to bind formal and informal learning opportunities together.  In doing so they tried to unpick much of the 1944 and 1902 Education Acts.  What they left intact, however, was that other aspect of 1944 namely the division of education at the age of eleven.  The proposals of 1965 could have been more beneficial to young people than the Acts of 1870, 1902 and 1944 put together.  But they weren’t.  Grand proposals required great sponsors, and both parties were at best equivocal in their support for comprehensive schools.  No great champions emerged because England had lost its zeal for education as a common good – the 1970s were to be all about private gain.  Earlier, opportunities for children had been mightily constrained by the kind of school they attended.  If a grammar school, then the academic curriculum severely limited the development of social skills, while if it was a secondary modern school the mere impossibility of pursuing academic study to any depth deprived most youngsters of a chance of progressing much beyond the lifestyle of their fathers.  For comprehensive schools to work then strong and determined political support was required, support which neither political party was prepared to give.

By the 1980s the idealism of the Post-War years had withered, and England was fast becoming consumed with a search for the good life, hopefully to be achieved by burdening oneself with as few commitments to other people as possible.  With this weakening of commonly agreed codes of behaviour and morality with which to shape everyday personal decisions, government found itself having to prescribe in ever finer detail what must, and must not, be done.  In a travesty of what should be a civilised society governments began to assume that the best way to avoid anti-social behaviour was to play on people’s fear of being caught out and punished.  All this meant that schools were no longer able to call upon a home background sympathetic to the expectations of the schools, the teachers, and the whole way of life as had been expressed in schools of less than a generation before.  Into this malaise in 1988 stepped Kenneth Baker, not with any new or polished-up vision of education but with the determination to apply whatever pressure was necessary to get the system (uncured of its original faults) running more efficiently.  And for the past twenty years that has been, in effect, the policy of both Conservative and Labour governments.  There is nothing, they have assumed, that can’t be fixed or a rigorous assessment system identify.  The more the teachers scream, the more the parents complain and the more the pupils yawn, the recipe of the past few years have all been remarkably alike – and ineffective.