- Review of Peter Hitchens’s new book ‘A Revolution Betrayed: How Egalitarians Wrecked the British Education System’ by Paul Ashwin, Professor of Higher Education, Head of Department and Deputy Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, Lancaster University.
- Next week, HEPI will be running a second review of the same book by a grammar school teacher that takes a different perspective on the arguments.
‘Comprehensive Britain’ has laid waste to our once great universities, fuelled rampant grade inflation, and destroyed, perhaps forever, educational excellence and rigour. It didn’t have to be this way. For a short while, grammar schools offered the best education imaginable by selecting for prepubescent academic ability. This led to unprecedented numbers of working-class children joining the elite. If, in 1956, there had been an expansion of grammar schools to meet the baby bulge then this green and pleasant land would have been preserved and led to the abolition of nearly all private education. Instead, driven by the hypocrisies and bad faith of ‘the left’ and ‘egalitarians’, and the timidity and cowardice of the conservatives, this revolution was trampled under a communist approach to schooling: the comprehensives. No serious person can deny that this egalitarian education was inevitably of much poorer quality and led to spiralling educational inequalities.
Thus goes the central argument and complaint of this book. It sees the destruction of the emerging grammar school system as an unforgiveable and irreparable act of cultural vandalism, which cannot simply be remedied by an expansion of the last remaining grammar schools. They are, the narrative goes, a pale imitation of what could have been achieved.
As will be clear, this is an angry book. However, while it is full of righteous anger, it is not completely clear what was key to this unparalleled, although largely undefined, educational superiority of the grammar schools of the 1950s. At times, it appears to be academic selection but, at others, critics of grammar schools are accused of blurring ‘the boundary between dislike of examinations and the dislike of the schools that relied on them’ (p.163). So maybe it was about the schools themselves? But, no, the book is ‘not an argument for grammar schools as such’ (p.111). In other places, it seems to be the size of schools that is key, with both grammars and secondary moderns being seen as successful because they were much smaller than comprehensives.
The emphasis on the size of schools is telling. The real target of the book seems to be the move to a mass education system in which, according to the author, the essential values of rigour and respect for academic authority have been lost. For example, in relation to higher education, ‘the growth in numbers attending universities was done at the expense of quality, a fact nobody can seriously deny’ (pp.102-3). No evidence is offered for this and many other assertions made in the book. Where evidence is presented, it is often incredibly selective. For example, when discussing the relative outcomes of selective and non-selective education, two hard to access reports which support the superiority of selective education are drawn upon and treated as a smoking gun whilst the extensive academic literature, much of which supports the opposite conclusion, is ignored.
There are other arguments in this book that feel contradictory or unconvincing. It is suggested that much of the egalitarians’ hatred of grammar schools came from a fear of ordinary people having access to schools that were conservative, hierarchical and Christian. However, the book also bemoans the significant role of church schools in the current educational system. Similarly, the claim that a school system based on academic selection would have led to the withering of private schools, does not fully cohere with the book’s view of a middle class which will do anything to ensure that their offspring maintain an educational advantage. That is unless it is assumed that the privileged will maintain their advantage in the face of such selection, which would totally undermine the claim that grammar schools had the potential to seriously challenge educational inequalities.
The book’s distaste for mass education gives it a ‘golden age’ feel, but it does raise some important questions and urgent issues that we need to address within our educational system. It is spot on about the extent of, and damage done by, educational inequalities and the ways in which a focus on competition and league tables has led to a loss of a meaningful focus on what we are educating for.
Despite agreeing with the urgency of some of the educational challenges identified, I fundamentally disagree with the book’s implicit view of humanity and the purposes of education. This is captured in despairing terms on the penultimate page of the book when commenting on the public outcry when a highly qualified state school student failed to get into the University of Oxford: ‘After 50 years of falling standards and weakening rigour, such emotion is seldom opposed by cool reason or factual knowledge, because we lack a properly educated elite with confidence to stand against the electronic mob which increasingly rules all decisions’ (p.165).
The book does not explicitly address the purposes of education, but it seems to be taken as self-evident that it is primarily to identify the academically most able. At times this feels brutal. The book discusses the personal narratives of several ‘egalitarians’, largely to point out their inconsistencies and failings. One of those discussed is the TV presenter Joan Bakewell, who went to a grammar school and gained a life much more privileged than her sister who did not. The book comments ‘Are we wrong to see in this, deep down, a stern recognition that this outcome was just? The two girls were both plainly very bright. But one “idled and failed”‘ (p.153).
It is striking that the book sees how hard individuals work at age 11 as a just way of determining their future, and views measuring academic potential as so straightforward that there is absolutely no reason to worry about the validity of such judgements. From the book’s perspective, you either believe education is for academic rigour, selection and knowledge or you believe it is for in social engineering in the name of equality. To protect academic rigour, it is insistent that we need to select people early and separate those who will be paid to think from those who will not. Anyone who dares suggest that such divisions might be harmful to society, or feels that determining people’s academic futures at such a young age results in a massive waste of human talent, are dismissed as deluded egalitarians. The book equally appears to have little time for anyone who wants an open education system in which people have chances to engage with knowledge at different points in their lives and find out how they can use it to contribute to society.
While I fundamentally disagree with the kind of education system argued for, the unapologetic way in which the book spells out its defence of selective education is illuminating. In this way, the book has some potential to stimulate much needed debate about the purposes, shape and structure of our educational system. The book offers a window into the world in which we might dwell if selective education had triumphed in the 1950s; a world viewed through rose-tinted spectacles with a very selective reading of the available evidence. It is an out of time world in which not every child is deserving of the best education. It is a world that, despite the undoubted challenges and inequalities of our current educational reality, I am deeply thankful not to inhabit.
HEPI’s reports on grammar schools are available below:
- The Impact of Selective Secondary Education on Progression to Higher Education (HEPI Occasional Paper 19)
- Social Mobility and Higher Education: Are grammar schools the answer? (HEPI Occasional Paper 22)
Thanks Paul, you have read this so thousands of us will never have to
Thank goodness for access and participation services at universities, plus ‘normal’ in society, humanity and especially education.