Gradations of schooling: educating elites between the Wars

Meanwhile, the grammar schools and public schools were able to benefit from the upside of the social and economic changes that occurred during the two decades between the Wars. Between 1914 and the outbreak of the Second World War, the number of pupils in secondary schools rose from 130,000 to almost half a million. By 1938, 44% of them were in receipt of free place scholarships. This represented only a small percentage increase since 1914, so it follows also that a far greater number of families were able and willing to pay school fees. But, as Kenneth Lindsay showed in 1926,49 not only were there more fee payers, but the free scholarships went in the main to those already advantaged. One elementan' school in Lewisham won as many free scholarships as the whole of Bermondsey put together. There were similar disparities right across the country'. Even worse, the numbers refusing free places was greater than those accepting, and in cities such as Bradford and Manchester it was shown that many of the refusals came from the most able. In a nutshell, the ancillary' costs of grammar school education, such as uniforms and books, added to the loss of an extra income to the family' for a protracted period, led thousands of the less well-off to reject secondary' education.

Nonetheless, the schools themselves thrived. Several of the most notable, such as Bolton School, King George V (Southport), Manchester Grammar, King Edward’s (Birmingham) and Merchant Taylor’s were able to move to spacious suburban sites and employ' well-known architects to design monumental buildings that marked these schools out as offering something very different from elementary' education. The social contrast could not have been more stark.

These grammar schools all followed the Board of Education’s curriculum policy, first established in 1904 and reiterated in 1917, which stipulated that ‘in order to be recognized, a secondary' school must offer ... a progressive course of general education’.50 These regulations specified in detail the subjects that must be taught. Although this may have suggested some blurring of the gender contrasts in these schools, the curricular choices of boy's and girls at sixth-form level told another story. Arts subjects and languages remained overwhelmingly' attractive to girls, and those girls that studied sciences were as likely as not to study biology' rather than the ‘hard’ sciences, physics and mathematics, which were dominated by males. The whole ethos of these schools remained dominated by the belief that boys and girls were, by and large, destined for differing life outcomes.

Even within this grammar school sector, social class gradations began to appear. In 1919 those endowed schools that were in receipt of public funding, but were at risk of becoming subject to the policies of their local authorities, were given the

Schools fit for heroes? 1914-1939 107 option of receiving their funding direct from central government in return for accepting agreed numbers of free scholars.51 Two hundred and fifty schools claimed this ‘direct grant’ status and the most prestigious joined the HMC. This had two immediate consequences. First, a route by which the sons of the new urban middle classes could aspire to the ancient universities and to the upper echelons of professional employment was more clearly established. Secondly, at a stroke, a massive inducement was given to the deployment and use of intelligence tests to determine who would win scholarships to these schools.

Strangely, although the public schools remained ‘the undeniable pinnacle of this educational structure’, they were still, as Rodney Barker pointed out, remote from the political gaze, not through their own efforts, but because ‘before the 1950s the Labour Party shared with Liberals and Conservatives a lack of any desire to make the role or position of the schools a matter of public policy’.52 As Tawney wrote in Secondary education for all, ‘they need not be taken into account in considering how the system can be improved and extended’. As late as 1955, Aneurin Bevan commented that ‘in a class society ... it is impossible wholly to prevent class education. Different levels of income will always find expression in different levels of expenditure’.53

Impressive as was this growth in the secondary sector, the governmental commitment to a general education left a massive gap in respect of technical training and vocational work at secondary level. Two compensator}' routes appeared. First, in 1926 the Board of Education officially recognized the growing number of Junior Technical Schools that the LEAs were establishing. These taught clerking to boys and secretarial and housewifery' skills to girls. By 1938 there were almost 250 such schools at work in England. These schools were full-time, but operated during the day' in the premises of the local technical colleges. Sarah King has shown that, in these schools, ‘although it was officially' claimed that “the education given to boys and girls is largely similar”, in practice male and female pupils were prepared for very' different kinds of employment’.54

The technical colleges themselves provided the route for vast numbers of the new lower-middle class, whose parents could not afford to postpone entry' to employment, to get a technical training at night school as part of their apprenticeship and as a route towards a career in industry. They' provided the ‘compensatory’ higher education in practical subjects which the universities did not. In a telling speech to the Association of Technical Institutions in 1909 George Beilby had given a prescient analysis of the situation which developed after the War. He said:

some of the universities have given us a noble lead in our earlier development.

But ... we have outgrown that need. I discriminate sharply between the function of the technical college, the training of large numbers of competent craftsmen or professional men, and the development of a smaller class of scientific pioneers.55

By' 1931 the numbers bore this out. In total there were 22,000 students at the ‘old’ universities and 15,000 at those established since 1900. The vast majority ofthese were not enrolled on technical courses. At the same time, there were over 100,000 adolescents in continuation schools and approximately a million part-time students enrolled on courses of study at technical colleges. These institutions were offering a new token of ‘respectability’ to the emergent lower-middle class. Yet, in the process they helped confirm the social divisions generated by the English education system, which continued to involve the perceived inferiority of technical education to humane studies, reflected in both social attitudes and funding levels.

Even within the university sector, significant social class distinctions were confirmed during the inter-War years. The old universities continued to offer a residential collegiate education, steadily increasing the numbers admitted from the public schools and becoming increasingly available to the sons of the new urban elites who had been educated at the best local grammar schools. Meanwhile, the greater numbers passing through the civic universities were drawn from a lower social stratum. The vast majority were day students commuting to attend their local university. This generated a particular set of problems. It meant that these civic colleges were in the main regional institutions whose students had little spare time from lectures for library’ work. The introduction of seminars and smaller tutorial groups, signalling a more reflective approach to learning, was one of the developments of this period. This was all part of the civic universities modelling themselves on Oxbridge. This also meant giving greater prominence to Arts subjects that had little to do with local trades and industries. Yet the realities of economic growth meant that departments such as engineering, chemistry and modern languages were themselves obliged to diversify, developing courses focused on particular specialisms or single languages. This spawned new more specialized departments, as well as the beginnings of honours courses as we know them today.56

These universities also became more susceptible to planning. The introduction of both the Committee of Vice Chancellors and the University Grants committee in 1919, linked to the continuing influence after the War of the DSIR, meant that although a strong competitive element was always present, there was a growing coherence and it became possible for the first time to think in terms of a ‘system’ of higher education.

Nonetheless, underlying all this was a widespread acceptance that the civic universities catered for a particular social group. As the Principal of Birmingham University, Sir Charles Grant Robertson, put it in his 1928 annual report: ‘the provincial universities, compared with Oxford and Cambridge, attract few who will not have to earn their own living’.57 For Sir Ernest Barker, the ancient universities remained ‘the stronghold of pure learning’ while the new universities were more attuned to the ‘demands of material progress’.58 Some historians, such as Martin Wiener, have seen this as set of values and behaviours which worked to cripple recruitment to industry. His summary’ of the inter-War years argued that

there was a rise in the number of university graduates entering industry', but this occurred more out of necessity than choice. The better students on the whole found more gentlemanly employment, and the number of industrialists’

Schools fit for heroes? 1914-1939 109 and engineers’ sons leaving their father’s sort of life continued to exceed the numbers of graduates entering it.59

It is difficult not to conclude that, in respect of higher education, as was the case at ever}' level of education, responses to the tensions and demands of the interWar years served only to confirm well-established social distinctions.

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