William V Shannon
William Shannon

Fellowship Title:

The Struggle for British Schools

William Shannon
May 8, 1970

Fellowship Year

William V. and Elizabeth Shannon

The education of one’s children is in England, as in America, a top-ranking conversational topic. It is also probably, the most deeply felt political issue before the country. At cocktail parties and dinners, in the beauty shop and the barbershop and on park benches, in Parliament and at political meetings, the questions are rehearsed endlessly.

In the United States, there is basically only one question: public or private (and within the private category, progressive or conservative). But the choices for a British parent seem endless and bewildering to an outsider. The terminology alone is staggering: Aided School, Comprehensive School, Controlled School, County School, Direct Grant School, Independent School, Maintained School, Secondary Modern School, Voluntary School, and Grammar School.

This diversity developed because in 1870, when the British Government first assumed state responsibility for education, there already existed a wide range of schools run by the Church of England, by the Methodists and other denominations, and by the Catholic Church.

Since it was politically impossible to sweep away these church-related schools, the British worked out a series of ingenious compromises to funnel public money into them, to share control with the churches in varying degrees depending upon how much public money was accepted, and to supplement them where necessary with public schools. (Throughout this letter the term “public” will be used in its ordinary American meaning. Perversely, from our standpoints the British have tended to call their private schools “public” although in recent years, they tend to be called “independent schools,” a term which is also coming into use in the United States.)

The chief decisions which an English parent has to make are first, the choice between private and public education, and second, a choice, when the child reaches 12, between grammar school (if the child qualifies) and comprehensive school. The grammar school is the traditional road to the university for middle class and bright, ambitious working class children. Only talented children get into grammar school, the curriculum is purely academic, the pace is more rigorous than in all but the very best high schools in the U.S., and the large majority of the boys and girls who finish go on to a university career.

The comprehensive schools in England are the equivalent of American high schools; they are an innovation in England, hotly debated, praised and damned. The present Labor Government is determined to make them a way of English life. Since 1965, all local education authorities have been under orders from the Ministry of Education to develop plans for making all secondary education comprehensive. Not all Conservatives are opposed to them. Sir Edward Boyle who was Minister of Education in the last Conservative cabinet and who, until recently, was Shadow Minister of Education on the Opposition Front Bench in the House of Commons is openly sympathetic to comprehensives. But many Tory parents and politicians resist comprehensives as “leveling down” the bright children and are determined to save the remaining grammar schools from integration in the new system. The Conservative Party is pledged to a policy of “local option” if it wins, but meanwhile the Government is pressing ahead with a bill to make comprehensives compulsory before the next General Election. Most teachers, on balance, favor comprehensives. Most parents are perplexed and have an unclear notion of what it is all about. Visiting Americans are cross-examined by puzzled Britishers much as if an American high school were as esoteric a phenomenon as a moon rocket.

We encountered the British school situation in the usual way because we had to find a school for our seven-year-old son, Liam. We wanted to put him in a progressive school, preferably one with male teachers, because that is what his excellent first-grade teacher in Washington, D.C. thought would be best for him. (In Washington, he attended his neighborhood public school.) We soon found that such a school does not exist in the center of London. British parents who can afford private school fees are overwhelmingly traditionalist; they want a primary school, which will prepare their boys for a prep school, or a grammar school, which in turn will prepare them for Oxford or Cambridge. The educational “rat race” is not uniquely American.

With a progressive school not to be found, we considered the private schools, which were in our immediate neighborhood. We had arrived in mid-July just as British schools close for their summer holiday, and it proved almost impossible to find out any certain information during the holiday weeks. At second and third-hand, we learned that these schools were all more or less traditional in their curriculum and in their discipline and style of teaching. But we thought it might not do Liam any harm to have the experience of a strict British school, even though he did not enjoy it much at the time. This is a characteristic British rationalization, which we somehow acquired.

But it did not matter what we thought. Private school places are as much in demand in London as in New York City. Every school to which we applied had a waiting list of two or three years. New schools do not open to meet the demand and the number of existing schools slowly diminishes. The reason is the high cost of London real estate. When the proprietor of a private school wishes to retire, he cannot usually find a young headmaster able to pay him the market price for his land and his building. It makes much more financial sense, to sell the school to a developer who wants a site for a hotel or a luxury apartment building.

The search for that elusive progressive school had led us unwittingly into the private school cul de sac. With the opening of the fall term only a week away, Liam’s father did what he would have done at the outset if he had moved to a strange American city. He called the local school authority and asked for the address of the nearest public school. A man on the other end of the line asked our street address. When told our expensive-sounding Belgravia address, he exclaimed, “You mean you want to send him to one of ours?”

It was a vivid encounter with British class attitudes, but it did not lead to a clear easy answer. It turned out that there was no equivalent of the neighborhood school. The school officer sent us a leaflet briefly listing five primary schools in our vicinity. Liam could go to any one of them which we chose and where the headmaster would admit him. They were all connected with one or another of the religious denominations. Since we are Catholics, we chose the Oratory School under the patronage of the fathers of the London Oratory on Brompton Road. “Under the patronage of” is a murky phrase, but it is the closest we can come to describing the relationship between the priests and the primary school. The headmaster and teachers are all lay men and women. A priest came once a week to give instructions for 45 minutes to those children, who like Liam, had not yet made their First Communion. Otherwise there was no religious instruction except that prayers were said at the beginning and end of the day and grace was said before the noon day meal. Religious education is compulsory in all British schools by law as part of the church-state compromise. A conscience clause enables teachers to opt out of teaching religion if they are non-believers, and parents may have their children excused if they wish. Very few teachers or parents take advantage of these provisions, mostly perhaps because religious instruction in most schools is neither intensive or extensive. One primary school teacher said, “I am not a strong believer so I compromise. I teach religion as part of Nature Studies.”

In January, we moved from our Belgravia flat to a smaller but more comfortable house in Chelsea. As a result, Liam changed schools. He now attends Christchurch, a nearby school under the patronage of the Church of England. The principal reason was nonintellectual. We did not want him to have to cross the King’s Road, Chelsea’s main street which is famous for its “swinging” clothing stores but which is also heavily traveled by trucks, buses, and cars. Christchurch, however, turned out to be mildly progressive and close to the kind of school we had originally been seeking for him.

Variety is inherent in the British system. The Ministry of Education sets standards and maintains inspectors, the local government and the churches share the costs, the headmaster has a voice in selecting the teachers in his school and is notably free in determining the discipline and tone of the school, and the classroom teachers decide how much time to devote to any particular subject and how to teach it. This variegated pattern is the polar opposite to the centralized French system. Even by the standard of most American school systems, it is radically decentralized.

An English child’s proper schooling begins when he is five. He may have been in nursery school before that but the odds are against it. The nursery or play school and the kindergarten are concepts rapidly gaining approval in Britain but for financial reasons, many local school authorities have been slow to organize them. Children from five to seven attend “Infants” class. A child begins in the term following his fifth birthday which gives an unfair advantage to the boy or girl who reaches five in the summer and begins school at the outset of the fall term. The child turning five, say in February, enters in the beginning of the spring term in March or April, but he will enter the “junior division” (seven years and up) with the children who started the previous autumn and who therefore have had six months more schooling. The infant’s classes are almost always a division within a primary school, and at seven, the child will go into the junior division where he will stay for four years.

The children in the early grades study arithmetic, English, history, Geography, nature studies, art, music, craft (boys), needlework (girls), physical education, and religion. It is left to the teacher’s discretion when and how long each of these subjects is studied. Liam has been in school since he was three, having attended nursery school for two years and kindergarten for one, but like most American children, he had not begun formal school work until he was six. This meant he was a year behind the ablest of his English schoolmates, notably in writing. The stress on learning how to write which is an outstanding feature of British education begins in the very first year. We were astonished when Liam came home from school one day last autumn and told us that his teacher had read them Rupert Brooke’s poem which begins, “I have been so great a lover…” and then asked them to write an essay telling about the things they loved best. By working for an hour every evening producing an essay on some theme of his own choice, Liam gradually closed “the writing gap” between himself and his English classmates.

There are approximately 24,000 primary schools in England and Wales and 150,000 teachers teach in them. Although 5,OOO new schools have been built since World War II, there is still a severe shortage. The new buildings have only kept pace with the children born in the post-war baby boom. They have not served to replace most of the old, poorly equipped schools which are still in use all over England. The design of new British school buildings since the war has won an international reputation, but over 6,000 primary schools—one-quarter of the total—are still being used even though they were built before 1875. The Oratory School, which Liam attended, was a four-story, red brick Victorian monument in this category. Another 6,OOO date from the 1875-to-1902 era. Christchurch School, which he now attends, is of this vintage.

Americans, who are notoriously bathroom-conscious, cannot help but be startled that more than half of English and Welsh primary schools – 13,810 out of 24,000 — do not have indoor sanitation for the pupils. Christchurch School, for example, has its toilet facilities in a small structure in the yard, back of the school. Five thousand schools have no central heating, and about 150 small rural schools have no piped water or electricity.

With some outstanding exceptions, therefore, it can be assumed that a primary school in London is an old red brick Victorian structure with tiny, cramped classrooms, inadequate toilet facilities, little or no space for physical education programs, and often no staff room.

Government spending on school building programs has been steadily rising. It is one of the boasts of the Labor Government that for the first time in British history, more money is being spent each year on education than on the military. 8ut the new classrooms are mostly used to accommodate shifts in population from old cities to suburbs and new towns and for increases in the secondary school population. This means that unless education is given an even higher budget priority, the ancient primary schools are going to be around for a good deal longer.

There is also a teacher shortage. Salaries for teachers in English primary school seem to an American scandalously low. An inexperienced but qualified beginning teacher starts teaching for a salary of $35 a week. Not surprisingly, there were widespread teachers’ strikes in England last fall, and NUT (National Union of Teachers) is increasingly militant.

Despite the shortage of teachers, only six percent of teachers are judged unqualified. To qualify as a teacher, one must complete a three-year teacher- training course or complete the new Bachelor of Education degree at a university. Most universities held their first examinations for the B. Ed. degree in 1969. Colleges of Education prepare students for one career only, that of teaching. British teachers seem reasonably well qualified for their chosen careers, but American observers and British critics can detect one perhaps unavoidable weakness. Most of those who become teachers have majored in English literature, history, or geography, Very few took college-level courses in mathematics or any of the sciences. As a result, English education through all the lower grades is strong in reading, composition, spelling, history, and art but weak in arithmetic, mathematics, and science (called “Nature Studies” in the early grades.) This causes concern in Britain because many of the nation’s leaders are convinced that the nation can only survive as a wealthy, progressive country if it is preeminent in the new science-based industries.

Big city school systems in Britain have their special problems just as they do in the United States. One of the most serious is that of immigrant children. In British primary and secondary schools, there are approximately 57,000 West Indians, 24,000 Indians, 7,800 Pakistanis, and 13,000 Cypriots. All of these minorities are increasing each year as part of the school population because like past immigrants to the United States, they tend to be young, of child-bearing age, and for the short-term, their birth rates tend to be higher than that of the older population. These immigrants are concentrated in London and the larger industrial cities, notably Birmingham. The immigrant children not only have to face a color barrier but most of them have assorted differences in language, customs, religion and diet which mark them off from their native English classmates. The schools lack qualified teachers to teach English to non-English speaking children although several colleges of education have belatedly begun such courses.

Bussing of immigrant children is a minor issue in British education although not on the inflated scale on which it is argued in America. The official circular put out by the Department of Education on this subject states: “Experienced teachers believe that a group containing up to one-fifth of immigrant children can fit in a school with reasonable ease, but if the proportion goes beyond a third, serious strains arise, and it may become difficult to prevent the proportion rising further.”

Some local school authorities bus children to maintain these proportions. But there are neighborhoods in London where the children in the primary schools are predominantly colored.

Most British primary schools lack the active parental support, which a good public elementary school in the U.S. would normally have. Parent-Teacher Associations are only beginning to come into existence.

When a British child is eleven, another big decision has traditionally loomed before him. This is the famous “Eleven-plus” exam. If he did well in this exam, he would be sent to a grammar school which is academic and college preparatory. If he did less well, he went to a Secondary Modern school until he was 15 and left school altogether. As mentioned above, the drive to abolish the Eleven-plus examination and merge all secondary education into one comprehensive school is now the major issue in British education. The impulse in this direction originated within the teaching profession among idealistic teachers and administrators who felt the old arrangement was socially divisive and sometimes cruelly unfair to working-class children who had native intelligence but did not do as well on examinations as they should because they came from deprived backgrounds.

The impulse made itself felt in Parliament. Two progressive Tory Ministers of Education, Sir David Eccles and Sir Edward Boyle, began pushing comprehensives in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s. One might have expected that the Labor Government, if it was bent on being a radical, reforming government, would have concentrated on education. Oddly enough, the Wilson Government has taken a revolving door approach to the education department. There were four different Ministers of Education in the first five years. Edward Short, the current Minister, is an energetic reformer and now in the waning months of this Government, the issue is nearing a climax.

The Government wants to see the demise of the grammar schools because they cream off the intellectually elite children of every social class and leave the comprehensive schools with only the academically less gifted. As long as the grammar schools are flourishing, the comprehensives can never be truly comprehensive in the makeup of their student body. Until they have a true cross-section of students, it cannot be proved whether they can give a high quality education to the brightest children—as the grammar schools admittedly do—while not closing the door in the faces of the less bright, the slow developers, the dull but determined plodders.

To an American, it seems a simple issue. The public high school in the United States has for generations been a successful route to higher education. The best high schools have been able to achieve what British advocates of comprehensives long to see in their own system: a combination of classroom work which enables every pupil to absorb and achieve what he is capable of, without either limiting the progress of the gifted children or depriving the less bright children of the opportunities each one deserves. In the United States, the small minority of children who are educated in private schools do not make up a majority of the academically successful. Yet the British have long tolerated exactly this situation. Indeed, until the postwar years, even the grammar schools took second place to the socially exclusive boarding schools such as Eton and Harrow.

Yet the transition from the old system to the new is hard even for liberals who believe in the change. One London headmaster told us candidly: “It’s hard to support the comprehensive idea when it comes to the schooling of my own child because I want the best for him, and the best and surest road to success in Britain is still via the grammar school to a university, preferably Oxford or Cambridge.

“I think the comprehensive idea is the best one for England and most teachers feel the same way. But unless we decide to do away with grammar schools completely and give the comprehensives the brightest children, it won’t work. And until I know it is going to work, I have this dilemma as a father about where to send my own eleven year-old son.”

A teacher in a London grammar school said: “My biggest complaint against them (the comprehensive schools) is their size. I suppose in America you are used to vast high school complexes with a thousand children or more, but the tradition in England has always been much smaller schools and many more of them. I still feel this is the best way. The children are apt to feel lost and unguided in such large, impersonal schools. I think most of the London comprehensives are much too big.”

A teacher who started his career in a grammar school and now teaches in a comprehensive confirmed this line of criticism: “We have discipline problems at Holland Park that you would not have in a smaller school. And there is not the esprit de corps that a good school should have.”

Yet those who may ultimately decide the issue—the students themselves—seem to prefer the comprehensives. More and more British teen-agers are choosing them simply because they are coeducational. Most grammar and private schools are not. As one academically talented 15-year old girl said, who is transferring next fall from a well-known, expensive London girls’ school to a new comprehensive: “You just can’t spend all your life with girls.”

If the Government insists that it will no longer send students to privately-run grammar schools, some of these schools will not be able to survive without the share of tuition income that now comes from local education authorities which pay the fees of poor but bright boys and these schools will have to join the state system completely and go comprehensive. But some of the better-known and financially better-established grammar schools will move in the other direction and become “independent schools,” i.e., completely private.

With the Government bill now virtually certain to pass within the next two months, the coming of comprehensive education in England seems sure. Even a Conservative triumph would not necessarily mean more than a slowing of the trend. But the opponents, mostly middle-class and vocal, will not go down without a fight all the way.

Received in New York on May 8, 1970.

Mr. Shannon is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from The New York Times. This article may be published with credit to Mr. and Mrs. Shannon, The New York Times, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.

© 1969 William Shannon