The idea that talents are learnt for the service of others and not given, and that knowledge should bring humility and a sense of involvement in mankind, are just as necessary correctives to the arrogance of a meritocrat in a highly technological world, as they were when the grammar school was founded long ago; without them a school’s record of academic success would be indeed alarming1.


People hold strong views on the question of selection.  Should the brightest be educated separately from the rest of the country, and if ‘yes’ by what means should they be identified?  It was the publication of “The Rise of the Meritocracy” by Michael Young in 1958 that sharpened the argument.  The book is a political satire of the finest kind, purporting to be an historical analysis of educational policy written with imagined hindsight from the year 2033; it’s a clever piece of suggestive fiction2.  As a boy in the 1930s Michael Young had actually spent a year at one of the country’s most academic grammar school, Manchester (MGS), and disliked it intensely.  Too much forced feeding of intelligent youngsters was a thoroughly bad idea, he argued, for it would produces a super-elite of book-learnt youngsters.  Young called such men the “meritocracy”, using the formula I.Q. + effort = Merit.  People may well object to the aristocracy, wrote Young, with all the unfair advantage that pertain to breeding, but does Britain really want to be administered entirely rationally?  Young knew his audience well; the English have always heartily disliked “clever clogs” who they imagine are “too big for their own boots”.


By inference Young cast doubt on the academic grammar school, and in the uncertainties of the 1960s he was highly influential3.  In six years Margaret Thatcher4, as Minister of Education, actually closed more grammar schools in favour of establishing comprehensive schools, than did her labour counter-part.  How, anyone not familiar with the politics of that time might readily ask, could that have possibly happened?  In the confusing nomenclature of English education, where “public” school means a private school, and where a grammar school is a superior secondary school, (not a junior school as in America), there was until the late 1970s a further confusion — a Direct Grant  (D.G.) grammar school5.  These were mainly ancient day schools that had resisted the temptation to become elite public boarding schools.  Entry was strictly by academic ability, and they had foundation funds that enabled many youngsters to be educated free of charge, independent of the LEA.  Amongst the 170 such schools were the old grammar schools of Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Newcastle, Lancaster and Birmingham.


With parliament’s half-hearted expansion of secondary education in the 1920s politicians favoured offering these older schools a direct grant in exchange for educating 25% or more of their pupils free of charge, rather than face the capital costs of building separate schools.  D.G. schools were socially comprehensive, and academically outstanding.  Here comes the final confusion.  The term public school has no legal status, and membership of the HMC, like any other ‘club’, was personal to the headmaster, not to the institution.  Over time many of the headteachers of the D.G. grammar schools were invited to join HMC; by inference their schools then became public schools even though the social status of their pupils were very different.  MGS granted as many Oxbridge scholarships in the 1960s as Winchester College.


By the time “The Rise of the Meritocracy” was published two remarkable High Masters had redefined the MGS curriculum in ways which made it the new yard stick for selective secondary education6.  Able to select some 210 eleven-year-old boys each year from right across Greater Manchester, their average IQ was in excess of 135.  These were boys who were going to do well, whatever.  When all other schools were demonstrating how bright were their pupils by taking ever larger numbers of ‘O’ levels, the MGS of post Michael Young days, thought that such an exam was a distraction (and only allowed its pupils to take six subjects).  What MGS was interested in was Sixth Form education.  Taking ‘O’ levels a year earlier than in most other schools, almost every pupil went on to spend three years in the sixth form, where the range of subjects was enormous.  Here were the unique bits; no more than two-thirds of a boy’s time could be allocated to examination subjects.  Every pupil had to spend a third of his time on general studies; scientists had to study the humanities, historians and those taking arts subjects had to study the sciences, secondly, every boy was expected to undertake some form of social service work, and to participate in an extraordinary array of out-of-school activities.  MGS was a place of self-generating, spontaneous activity.


Direct Grant schools provided a unique bridge between the private and the public sectors of education.  They fed on talent, and they developed it.  They provided an excellent education, and they were not expensive.  Egalitarian they certainly were, and unashamedly academic, but they were extremely socially aware as the above thesis from the school prospectus of 1965 shows.  By their very achievements the D.G. schools made many enemies.  Bridges they might have been for many a working-class boy, but to those politically opposed to any form of selection, they were an easier, and more obvious, target than the full-blown boarding public schools somewhere in the distant countryside.  To an idealistic socialist these schools, in their own backyards, demonstrated an approach to education which they abhorred, and to which some of the very pupils they wanted to lift the standards in their own as-yet-untested comprehensive schools preferred to go.  To the labour politicians from the late 1960s the enemy of comprehensive education was the Direct Grant school, not the public school7.

Thesis 68:     27th August 2006