T3 A future going backwards

T3 A Future Going Backwards

The power of the past over the present has rarely been demonstrated better than by educational politics today. The attempt to return to grammar schools is only one part of a great nostalgia boom partly due to the sepia tinted view of the BBC4 programme criticised by Michael Pyke – though the Downton Abbey phomenon and the public school domination of social life – is more important than the middle class grammar schools as the public school background of the Conservative cabinet and its New Labour counterpart till recently has shown. Here Sally Tomlinson looks at the underlying reasons for a drive to the past which as Michelle Lowe has commented, is like bindweed choking English education. TF.

Sally Tomlinson

So here we are in the 21st century busy re- creating an education system that has more in common with a 19th version of public education than a system for the future. Nineteenth century schooling, influenced by religious and charitable interests, emerging business interests in mass education post-industrialisation, and growing working class political demands, resulted in a social –class based system organised around hierarchies of schools and strong central control. So what’s new?

A major ‘new’ may be that, despite the denigration of ‘low achievers’ and ‘failing schools’ mass education has so far been a qualified success. But a labouring class is now educated to much higher levels than can be accommodated in a digital economy. Rather than plan economies around this success governments are now in panic mode as to how to distribute education so that people once more ‘know their place’ ( Ranson 1984). Long-standing beliefs help here. The old Platonic distinctions that people are born as gold, silver, iron and brass, remains excellent political propaganda for keeping people in their allotted place. Behind the mantra that every child must be educated to fulfil his or her ‘potential’, lie long-standing deterministic assumptions that children are able, less able, average, unable or disabled. Nineteenth century eugenic beliefs in the biological and cultural inferiority of lower social classes and racial groups reinforced views that while genius and talent were ‘in-born’ so low ability ,mental defects, delinquency crime, prostitution, unemployment and other social evils were inherited (Galton 1869). One remedy was to control the family size of the lower classes.. (Oops, is current child welfare policy in England aimed at restricting the family size of poorer groups?)

Beliefs in fixed ability and innate intelligence influenced the men (and they mainly were public school educated men) who post second world war designed a tripartite system of education, which quickly became a dual system of state-maintained grammar and secondary modern schools. although the rich and influential always did and still do use private schools. But at least in 1945 there was some democratic input via elected local education authorities, and the types of mind not thought suitable for academic or technical education could find jobs. A recession in the 1970s and the disappearance of jobs, led to anxiety, not over the disappearing jobs, but over education as a preparation for work and an obsession with raising ‘standards’ of education. Policies of comprehensive schooling that allowed more young people to actually be taught for and take public examinations led to expectations that a national system of good local schools, funded by tax-payers and with local democratic input, could be a possibility.

But enter the Thatcher era, and re -commitment to a nineteenth century neo-liberal scenario in which free consumers embrace the laws of the market for personal and familial profit. Education was to become a competitive business, and by the 1990s local authorities were sidelined and ‘choice and diversity’ was the mantra. An expanded middle class competed for the best state-maintained schools if they could not afford the private schooling which increasingly led to the business, social and political networks that led mostly to secure and well-paid employment. Despite a rhetoric of ‘opportunity for the many’ and a vaunted concern for ‘ the disadvantaged’ governments of all shades persisted in the recreation of a class-based hierarchical school system. Overt and covert selective policies, still based on the notions of ‘fixed abilities’ legitimised ways of separating out aspirant and middle classes from the poorer groups, and who could blame them, now that competitive individualism and a desperate ‘my child needs to be better than yours’ now guides educational consciousness.

Avoidance of vocational education and practical training , and avoidance of the poor are emblematic of a system in which various groups, depending on their level of economic and cultural capital (think of the money being made in the tutoring industry) now struggle to maintain privilege for their children in preparation for a competitive global economy.. The coalition government of 2010-2015 extended the process of demolishing a democratic education system, with local education authority influence disappearing as supposedly self-sustaining competitive schools and chains of schools, sign individual agreements and receive funding directly from central government and their Boards and Trusts make money and the current Conservative government promises more of the same. The Department of Education carries out policies at ministerial whim, with no consultation. Power is centralised in the person of the Secretary of State and the running of a nation’s school system has been increasingly handed over to business, religious and, in the case of Free (actually free-market) schools, to the vested interests of some parental groups. The legitimation for all this now includes a resurgence of the old nature-nurture eugenic debates, where some children are regarded as less well endowed and need different kinds of schooling (Asbury and Plomin 2014), crocodile tears are wept for those children who nee better teachers and ‘school leaders’ and as in the late ninetieth century , punitive regimes for excluding those who are difficult to teach are extended. The irony is that the government is struggling to equate international comparisons of achievement with economic performance, despite persisting with a fragmented system increasingly shown to be dysfunctional in a global economy.


Asbury,K and Plomin,R (2014) G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement Chichester Wiley Blackwell

Galton,G. (1869) Hereditary Genius London. Macmillan

Ranson,S. (1984) “Towards a Tertiary Tripartisim: new codes of social control and the 17+”

In (Ed) Broadfoot, P. Selection, Certification and Control London. Methuen