I know ‘cos I was there: what grammar school lobbyists are really on about

I was wondering the other day why I associate bull-headed opposition to the serious study of popular culture in two different social groups and for two different reasons – specifically the twin reactionary beliefs which need each other for either to survive, both “we’re beneath it” and “it’s above us” – more with south-east England than anywhere else, and specifically with the county in which I grew up.

And then I remembered that that county has retained a 1950s education system.

It should go without saying that I abhor with all the fibre of my being the de facto privatisation of state education which the current government is continuing to accelerate.  I regard it as one of the very worst acts of vandalism among many so far committed under Cameron’s watch.  But even after the de facto privatisation of Portland’s schools, I still regard the education system here as infinitely preferable to the one I left behind (Hitchens Minor, in particular, really should wonder – which means he won’t, of course – how his portrayal of New Labour as some kind of Trotskyist fringe movement in power fits with the fact that they left the grammar schools which had effectively survived by mistake very much in place).  It is possible, of course, that a right-wing movement might take over effectively privatised state schools in places like this and use them to demonise, and de-Anglicise, urban England; I never felt, as some other elements on the Left did, that this invalidated concerns about what appears to have happened in Birmingham (although Hitchens Minor also defended that, for different reasons), but I do still feel it is an issue of concern.  But I think young people in places like this would all, pretty much universally, instantly and unequivocally reject it; even if some of their parents (I think more so, if anything, those who have moved from places like Birmingham than those with older roots here) want to take them in such a direction, virtually none of them want to go there, and I also don’t think the academy process blots out quite the same tradition of progressivism in state schools here as it does in some other places – there might, if anything, have been more teachers with those reactionary ambitions in the past than there are today.  You can’t effectively take young people with the aspirations that young Portlanders mostly have and mould them into the Wurzels, even if you want to.

The other problems are obvious enough if you think like me; I think of that letter to The Times in 1995 – 1995! – about one of the Buckinghamshire girls’ grammar schools insisting on knitting as the first module in its science GCSE, which inevitably reminds us of the fact that the anti-science culture in grammar schools, and the failure to develop technical schools properly, did more damage to Britain in the thirty years after the war probably than anything else.  It is all very well to talk about France and Germany; they don’t have the inherent social impairments built into their societies that we do.  In a society such as this, we simply cannot afford such a system as they no doubt can, because it cannot but indulge negative social tendencies here, and cannot be the relatively fair judge of aptitude that I believe it pretty much is there.  I have people in my own family who never fulfilled their considerable potential, and are still living out lives which are far narrower than they should be or need to be, precisely because they weren’t put forward for grammar school because they weren’t considered The Right Sort.  I’d love us to be the sort of society where there is no risk of that.  But there still is, even now, and you can’t wave a magic wand and turn us into France or Germany overnight.  That’s why the comparison doesn’t hold.

But if – as I believe is still broadly the case in Kent, although I do also recognise (c.f. one comment here) that even they have evolved in this respect, at least to some extent, though I would still say more because they had to than because they really wanted to – the schools which are perceived as most socially prestigious perceive the serious study of popular culture as beneath them, and the majority are educated in schools which are dominated by an overriding sense of social inferiority and isolation, and are recognised by reliable sources as considerably worse than many in inner London (East Anglian primary schools also scored very low on a recent poll, again possibly the victim of a “learning’s not for people like us” culture – there is a reason why that kind of working class has always been the Tories’ favourite kind; it’s why I have to fight it so hard – which brings on an even greater sense of relief that East Anglia abandoned its grammar schools decades ago, and that Cambridgeshire’s secondary system has long had so much to say for it), the two equally odious twin forms of reactionary sentiment specifically with regard to popular culture, the Sun version and the Telegraph version, are both strengthened in a way they don’t need to be, even (indeed, especially) as they make less and less sense in the wider world.

The chosen few will still be more likely to erect strict high-low divisions, in terms of how they handle and approach the multiple experiences of their developing lives, which they would be less likely to do in other places under other systems; the rest will be much more likely, precisely because of the educational separation, to think taking this stuff seriously “isn’t for people like us”, a betrayal of its authenticity.  Neither will be given an education which addresses what has happened in the wider culture since most of the country moved on in terms of its education system; both will set up equally unnecessary divisions, and both will trivialise mass culture, the one simply as an escape when it can be so much more than that, the other as the totality of their lives when it can be so much more than that, too.  Their tastes within mass culture might well be narrower in both cases, and different cultures within pop will cross over with each other far less, with all the racist and classist implications (worse than ever as a direct result of Blair’s legacy) that carries.  Neither social group will be given the basic grounding they would both get under fairer and newer systems, and both will be weaker and narrower for it.

On his own terms, Hitchens Minor’s vision makes perfect internal sense, and is a lot more honest than the typical pussyfooting of other right-wing hacks.  (And no, I don’t really dispute Hitchens Minor’s points on selection by postcode within the comprehensive system; where I do dispute with him, and the Mail titles as a whole, is in the argument that it would be “communist social engineering” even to attempt to challenge that.)  I think the 2012 series recently repeated on BBC Four was entirely correct that the grammar school model made much more sense in the pre-Beatles world than in the world that replaced it.  But schools have an exceedingly limited power to change and direct the world around them; almost by definition, they cannot create or set trends in themselves.  If you believe – as Hitchens Minor does – that schools should ignore the world around them and pretend that all the important things which have happened in it haven’t happened and won’t go on happening, then of course you will prefer grammar schools.  If you believe they have other responsibilities, you won’t.  It’s really remarkably simple.

And I suffered for it directly, and my education never fully recovered, even when we came here.  Quite apart from my barely-diagnosed condition doing what it did, I grew up in a house where both Bullseye and Radio 4 were on as a matter of course.  How could I possibly have fitted in such an arrangement?  Unlike a lot of people of my age and below, I know, ‘cos I was there.

4 responses to “I know ‘cos I was there: what grammar school lobbyists are really on about

  1. Westengland

    Do you remember this discussion I started on The (old) Mausoleum Club?:


  2. I am not in favour the grammar school system, but neither the one I attended, or those my father and uncles did, were ‘anti-science’ at all. And, as it happens, we did an A level called Communication Studies – a course that borrowed heavily from Raymond Williams’ book.

    The problem with P.Hitchens’ position is he simply gets the history wrong. Parental pressure across a range of local authorises forced the main wave of closures in the 60s and 70s. This was an excellent lecture btw what happened: https://vimeo.com/100198718

  3. Westengland – yes, yes, I do.

    William – I know that I was talking in terms of broad brushes, and that broad brushes leave a lot of history out. The bit at the end about having grown up in the sort of house, in the sort of place, where a lot of Northerners and Midlanders tell me that ‘Bullseye’ could never possibly have been on – but it was, every Sunday, for years – kind of hints at that. Having parents from different cultural backgrounds and tastes is an experience which broad-brush history implicitly denies, and it shouldn’t, and it’s hugely relevant to the grammar school issue.

    Definitely agree that Hitchens Minor imagines multiple Marxist conspiracies such as never really existed to that extent or with that power (in multiple fields, not just this one).

  4. Have made a slight revision to the above; compared with some of my earlier pieces I wasn’t quite as sure about this one (or the other one just before it) as I was writing it.

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