When my dad died a couple of years back, I inherited a shoebox with some of the important things from his life. My dad didn’t keep much — some medals his brother was posthumously awarded after the plane his was travelling in ditched into the Indian Ocean in June 1945, family letters, photos, and some other stuff. Alongside this were my five end-of-year reports from my secondary school days. I don’t remember ever talking to my dad about my schooling. Though a bright man, he had not done well at school and left as soon as he could at fourteen in the 1930s, much as I left at sixteen in the early 1980s. After reflecting on the reports, I’m filled with conflicted feelings. First, I regret that he didn’t pick me up on the accurate and well meant criticisms my teachers offered. But this feeling is tempered by the sense that maybe things turned out okay for me in the end. I found employment in a stimulating and secure workplace and later was able to attend Ruskin College Oxford, which aimed to prepare unqualified adults for university education – two structural advantages that a similarly unqualified sixteen year old would not have today.
I’ve been thinking about the contents of that shoebox a lot over the last half year or so as my ten year old son Max prepared for and then took the test that determines what type of secondary school he will join next September. Kent, the English county we live in, still has a state funded secondary school system that divides kids based on test scores into a privileged twenty percent who attend grammar schools and a secondary modern system for the remaining eighty percent. After Max took the ‘Kent Test’ in September, while we waited for his scores, we visited the various schools that he might (or might not) get to attend. I have done these visits with something of a three-way split personality. I toured the schools first as a parent who obviously wants the best for his kid. I also walked around as a professional sociologist interested in class, stratification, and cultural capital issues. But finally, I was there as someone with working-class origins comparing what I saw with my own experience of education.
Our first visit was to our local community school, one where those deemed to have ‘failed’ would have little choice but to go. By my lights, the school looked pretty good. We saw lots of evidence of extra-curricular activity and achievement, and the building looked modern and well cared for. In her presentation to the assembled parents, the principal made much of the caring and supportive atmosphere the pupils enjoy. My younger self would have loved to have gone to a school such as this, and our neighbour’s kids did and seem to have thrived there.
The following week Max, my wife, and I went to one of the elite grammar schools on our list. It was obvious from the start that this would be a very different experience from our local school. We were met at the entrance by some of the senior prefects, the older ones dressed in business suits. We made our way around the classrooms on the organized tour before dutifully filing in to the lecture theatre to hear the presentation. First up, after a jazz piano recital by one of the musically gifted students, was the school’s head-boy who acted at the master of ceremonies for the evening and seemed more confident in talking to a bunch of strangers than most academics are with years of practice. He introduced some of his younger school mates – each in their way equally confident – before inviting the principal to do her PowerPoint karaoke presentation, reading word for word the bullet points on the screen behind her, ramming home the message through a blizzard of statistics and tables that, though a state school, this was an elite place that we should be grateful to have offspring attend.
This presentation, and indeed the entire event, struck me as Harry Potteresque – this was Hogwarts without the owls and magic lessons. This is a state school funded out of general taxation, yet it aped private schools, especially the trappings that go with them. It seems to me that parents and the school administration were in an unholy alliance, each bidding up the elitism of the education on offer, deliberately distancing it from what the remaining eighty percent would enjoy. Rather than break down class differences, this attitude reinforces class polarization by making parents and their kids aim for socially divisive schooling.
Conservative politicians in Kent believe the grammar system is a good one, though it was phased out in most places by both Labour and Tory Parties during the 1970s. Many right of center politicians in the rest of England dream nostalgically of returning to this set up nationally, viewing it as a meritocratic system that gives all kids a chance of an elite education. But this ideal of meritocracy is just wrong. Most of the kids who pass the test have been rigorously coached on how to do so – as my wife and I did with Max. I’ve spent one afternoon each week in term time ferrying him to cramming lessons that we are lucky enough to afford. We have bought him endless test papers and exercise books and spent hours coaching him on the various aspects of the Kent Test. Max is lucky — his parents have the resources, education, and time to devote to this process. As a concerned parent, sociologist, and former working-class kid, I know that many other boys and girls Max’s age are not so fortunate.
Recently we learned that Max had passed the test with flying colors. We are all delighted that he will receive the type of school education that my younger self could only dream of. But this elation and relief is held in check by the fact that many of Max’s school mates have not passed. By implication they have been told by the age of ten that they have failed and that they deserve a less-good schooling, one that will affect their life chances probably for the rest of their lives. This was indeed another education in class and the way it insidiously structures all our lives. For both parents and children, winners and losers, class and the resources that go with it are being played out on a daily basis.