This article features in our April Education Special Issue – more information about this issue is available HERE.

Ever since the implementation of the comprehensive education system under Harold Wilson’s government in 1965, our education system’s primary goal has not been education, but equality of outcome. As, however, with any project undertaken with equality as its goal, this has failed miserably. 

Education itself is a largely conservative idea, since it seeks to pass down the knowledge and wisdom gained over many generations by our ancestors, on to the children of this nation. Complementary to this, are the ideas of hierarchy, authority and discipline – personified by teachers, timetables, and, even, by corporal punishment. Comprehensive education has rejected these ideas in favour of enlightened, forward-thinking egalitarianism. By any measure, the results have been disastrous. 

The tripartite education system – of grammar schools, secondary moderns and technical schools – was introduced by the 1944 Education Act, and preceded the current comprehensive education system that we have today. In this era of academic selection, there was also a scheme of direct grants that allowed children – including those from less wealthy families – to access private education free of charge. 

Much of this system espoused the ideas of the ancien régime, be it in its strict teaching methods, or its authoritative architecture. The comprehensive education system was – and, indeed, is – an attempt to reject this traditional way of thinking, and has paved the way for a ‘modern’, ‘equal’ society. 

The ferocious desire to pursue this is perhaps best summed up by one of the education reformers of Mr. Wilson’s government, Anthony Crosland (the Secretary of State for Education) who said he would ‘shut down every f*****g grammar school in the country.’

Perhaps the main motivation for thinking that the comprehensive education system is better than the previous tripartite system is that it gives everyone an equal playing field-  access to top-class education, for all. Yet, the Sutton Trust (2017) has found that, in order to attend a good comprehensive, you must be able to afford to live in a house (located in a certain catchment area) £46,000 more expensive than the national average. This means that ‘forty-three per cent of pupils at England’s outstanding secondaries are from the wealthiest twenty per cent of families’, according to Teach First (2017). 

Therefore, in getting rid of academic selection in our education system, we have replaced it with selection by wealth.

As well, the tripartite system resulted in many more pupils – who otherwise could not have afforded private education – having first-class education. The Gurney-Dixon Report (1954) showed that over sixty per cent of students in grammar schools at the time were actually the children of manual workers – no top comprehensive school could boast of a figure like this today. 

In terms of education, what pupils are actually taught at school today is vastly inferior to what used to be taught. Perhaps the clearest indication of this is the dumbing down of examination papers over the years, and the ensuing grade inflation. In 2000, the Engineering Council released their results of a ten-year study of each new intake of university undergraduates reading maths, science and engineering. These students were given an identical test. The study found that as entrants’ grades at A-level had risen, their mathematical understanding had declined. 

Perhaps, if possible, compare any examination papers your parents or grandparents sat in the past, to ones given today at school (which can be found online). This should also show the decline of educational standards over the past fifty-five years. 

However much money we throw at the comprehensive system, this will not overcome the decline of education in our schools.

We are not all born the same. Each of us have different strengths and weaknesses. This diversity should be relished, and not be attempted to be stamped out by egalitarian measures. Academic selection facilitates this diversity, and the tripartite system allowed entire schools to focus on similar groups of pupils to facilitate their specific education requirements. 

Of course, there were weaknesses in the old system – such as there not being enough technical schools – but no system shall ever be perfect. The comprehensive education system has the flaw that all children, for all their differences, are lumped into one classroom together. 

Even if the attempts are made to split the classrooms into upper and lower sets, the teacher is limited as to how far they can push certain pupils so that they do not let other pupils fall behind. At least with the tripartite system, it was realised that children differed in their skills, and an attempt was made (quite successfully) to facilitate this. 

The comprehensive system bought along other changes in teaching methods, too. For instance, it is now uncommon to find a classroom full of individual desks facing the front, with a teacher lecturing to their pupils. Teachers are largely unwilling to discipline disobedient pupils in any serious way, and would never dream of – nor would be allowed to – hit across a pupil’s knuckles with a ruler, as a punishment. 

Christianity is treated as a novelty, something on equal footing with the other major religions of the world. It is rare for secondary-school pupils to sing hymns or to pray, let alone learn by heart English poems or the names of Kings and Queens. Uniforms have become more informal (see page eight), and competitive sports is usually consigned to one day in the summer – ‘sports day’. 

Of course, the elites in this country know the comprehensive system has been disastrous. Yet, whilst politicians send their own children to public schools or top-tier state schools, they spout propaganda to the rest of society so as to keep these privileges away from the masses. 

Old Labour knew the old system worked; Clement Attlee (left) and his government engaged in its expansion, and was proud to send legions of working-class pupils – who would otherwise not have received first-class educations – to grammar schools. 

It was once commonly said that an old English A-level was worth a USA college degree under the tripartite system. Is an English A-level today now even worth the paper it is written on? 



Photo by Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer on Wikimedia Commons.