A thousand years of class divisions in the classroom

The past millennium may have seen a massive expansion of educational opportunity in England, but schools are still key transmitters of wealth and social position.
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Formal education, though not the only kind of teaching and learning, was for centuries strictly a minority interest. In England it was always tied up with social class and occupational group. The Victorians accepted inequality and devised a school system which reflected it. Our "failing" schools of today could be said to be inheritors of that inequality.

The Church was the main source of education in the early centuries. Religious houses were dotted around Britain where monks added to their spiritual duties the illumination of manuscripts and preserving the relics of classical civilisation.

The Church needed literate or semi-literate priests and deacons and, for their vocation, education was a condition of employment - Latin for the liturgy, some theological study, and education enough for a "plain Saxon sermon". The Church, of course, was the repository of secular as well as sacred learning and provided the clerisy for royal government till Elizabethan times, including the top public servants - all those hastily-ordained deacons like Thomas a Becket who showed monarchs how to raise taxes and carry on diplomacy.

Literacy was also needed for a minority of others in civil society. A definition of functional literacy in the 13th or 14th century would have been closely related to your station in life. Noblemen would employ a chaplain as secretary or call on the services of one when needed. As wealth spread and the elements of a mercantile middle class came on the scene more people needed to read, write and cipher.

Merchants needed to send letters and issue bills. Commerce generated legal disputes and the need for lawyers who, in turn, created their own legal education and focused on the Inns of Court, as Michael Holroyd brought out in his recent biography of Thomas More.

The English universities were firmly under clerical control and the colleges would for many centuries be run by clergymen. But they soon became more than seminaries for the education of clergymen - though many graduates and all college fellows would take orders. The Renaissance and the printing press reinforced the supremacy of classical learning and enriched it with more Latin and Greek texts. As Erasmus showed, it was relatively easy to commute between European universities. Oxbridge colleges flourished and declined, living off their endowments and fees, acutely sensitive to the ups and downs of political fortune.

After the Reformation they became Anglican foundations with no place for dissenters or Roman Catholics till well into the 19th century. Classical studies and mathematics had pride of place as a preparation for service in church and state. Becoming a parson was likely also to mean becoming a teacher - eking out the parson's stipend by taking pupils who would be taught the rudiments of Latin and mathematics.

The 16th century saw the foundation of a spate of new schools, some of them royal, like Henry VIII's Eton, well endowed with land and wealth, others much less rich, set up by benefactors with an eye to immortality. This was the period in which many local grammar schools were established for the education of - say - 10 poor scholars with money to provide a teacher, often the local parson. The whining schoolboy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like a snail to school had become familiar enough to groundlings and gentry alike for Shakespeare to use him to symbolise one of the seven ages of man.

Grammar schools appeared in most country towns, but the records show they were incredibly badly managed. Many collapsed and were re-founded several times over in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were known as "Endowed Schools" but their endowments seldom paid for what was necessary and by the 19th century many schools, founded as charities to provide education for poor scholars, had been colonised by the well-to-do. By the middle of the 19th century it had become obvious that something had to be done to create an education system out of the haphazard growth of schools.

Before they could bring themselves to grasp the nettle of education for the masses, the Victorians set about bringing order to the secondary schools by appointing an Endowed Schools Commission under Lord Taunton to sort them out. They found themselves dealing with a job lot - alongside the old grammar schools (about 700) there were also some 2,200 non-classical schools which were devoted, both by their foundations and by actual use, to the education of the labouring classes. In addition, there were 10,000 "private" schools run by proprietors for their own profit. Dotheboys Hall was presumably one of them.

The commissioners saw the schools as serving particular markets among the children of the estimated three million members of the middle and higher classes. They identified three grades of school, ranked according to the aspirations of the parents. The first grade schools were for the children of parents who would keep them at school to 18 - men of independent means and various gradations of professional men and some members of the poorer gentry.

Second grade schools kept pupils up to the age of 16 and offered Latin and modern subjects, but not Greek, for the boys headed for the army and trades and professions which they would need to enter at 16. The third grade schools stopped at 14 and were for the sons of tenant farmers, small tradesmen and artisans and would offer them a clerk's education.

The Victorians were realists and the lesson they learnt from the sociology of education was to accept inequality and devise a system of secondary education, firmly rooted in parental expectation and social position and the notion of an educated class. As the middle class expanded and got richer, the range of secondary schools widened, and after 1902 the county councils added yet more. Their pupils included scholarship holders as well as fee-payers, and provided a vehicle of social mobility for bright working class boys (and girls). But they were essentially institutions for the minority of pupils - never more than 15 per cent - with superior abilities or well-to-do parents.

Earlier, there had been moves to reform the ancient universities, now joined by King's College London, the first of the new 19th century foundations. Oxford's famous riposte to Lord John Russell's Royal Commission indicated what the reformers were up against. The Hebdomadal Board saw no need for any action because two centuries ago - in 1636 - the university revised the whole body of its statutes, and the academic system of study was admirably arranged at a time when not only the nature and faculties of the human mind were exactly what they are still, and must, of course, remain, but the principles also of sound and enlarged intellectual culture were far from being imperfectly understood.

Educational reformers also had to do something about the mixed bunch of schools founded by the churches and by other philanthropists to provide elementary schooling for the children of the poor - the great mass of the population. Eventually in 1870, Forster's Act created School Boards to fill up the gaps left by the churches and non-denominational school- providers. Compulsory education followed a few years later.

These schools provided the education thought suitable for working class children - a minimal introduction to the basics. Again, the rationale was strictly in sociological terms, and it related to a world in which children were wage earners before they entered their teens. Elementary schools for the mass of the population continued till the 1944 Act, by which time the leaving age had crept up from 10 or 11 to 14 years.

Building on foundations like these, it is hardly surprising that it has proved difficult to create a unified system of education based on equality of opportunity. The tension continues. What pupils and parents want from school is still related to the prospects of employment - while teachers and educationists - and now politicians - have higher aspirations.

Educational development, post-World War Two, has gathered pace in the past 15 years from a gallop to a break-neck stampede. It was only in the mid-1980s that the proportion of the age-group staying on at school beyond the minimum leaving age topped 50 per cent. Enrolment in higher education has rapidly moved up from around 15 per cent to more than 30 per cent. More than one in 20 of the work force is employed in education.

The Education Reform Act of 1988 completed the task of organising the system begun by the Victorians nationalising the school curriculum and prescribing it in detail by Parliamentary Order.

But social factors still impose themselves on educational performance. A thousand years of education have shown how closely education is linked to jobs and social status. It was true of the vocational education of novices in a medieval religious house, it was also true of the preparation of would-be district commissioners within public schools, and it explains many of the troubles of "failing" schools in our modern urban slums. At the beginning of the new millennium, nothing suggests that education has lost its significance as a way of transmitting wealth and social position from one generation to another. Ministerial task forces and Ofsted inspectors are unlikely to stop this. Meanwhile, the British universities are going down the slot because they have ceased to have friends in high places.

Heigh-ho it is some comfort to know that it will all be one with Nineveh and Tyre a thousand years from now.

The writer was editor of the `Times Educational Supplement' from 1969 to 1989, and is the author of `History of Education in London 1870-1990' among other books