Letter: Diversity, choice and a misunderstanding of the history of education

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The Independent Online
Sir: I have some sympathy with the thrust of the argument in John Patten's piece today ('A learning-by- choice revolution'). My difficulty with it stems from his ignorance of the recent history of English education; and the fact that every action since he became minister has been calculated to nullify his educational aspirations as set out in the article.

He says that the 1944 Education Act saw the 'introduction of grammar, technical and modern schools'. It did nothing of the kind. Grammar and technical schools already existed; and none of those schools are prescribed, or even seriously mentioned, in the Act, which had two main objectives - to create a clear distinction between primary and secondary education and to make parental fee-paying illegal in grant-aided schools.

The Act foresaw 'a varied and comprehensive system in every area'. Both Rab Butler and Edward Boyle went on the record in describing it as a framework that made possible the eventual removal of selection for secondary education, and thus the emergence of the comprehensive school.

England's three or four decades of tripartite secondary education were foisted by public school-educated civil servants, through a coalition government circular, The Nation's Schools, upon a Labour minister of education, Ellen Wilkinson.

Mr Patten insists his proposals are 'anathema to the tidy minded'. He could have fooled me, and indeed most heads and teachers. His 'tidy minded' system of tests and league tables is simply designed to widen the social and educational 'diversity' between schools that his distinguished predecessors Rab Butler and Edward Boyle spent their lifetimes attempting to narrow.

Yours faithfully,



5 April

The writer was chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts (1979-83).