Most problems in the world go back to Mrs Thatcher (that’s a joke) but just a few to Shirley Williams. I’ve nothing against comprehensive schools per se. There is much to be said for large institutions that can command better facilities, provided they are effectively subdivided into smaller, more personal units. But efficiency was not the main motivation behind the establishment of comprehensives. It was equality, the idea that everybody should be given an equal opportunity. But behind this apparently admirable thinking there lay the precise opposite, for its proponents meant by equality the equal opportunity to succeed in the kind of academic skills that lead to the kind of middle class jobs that most of those intellectuals who supported the Shirley Williams approach enjoyed. Secondary moderns were despised because this was precisely what they could not provide. There is an underlying fallacy here concerning cognitive abilities. The kind of brain that is good at parking a lorry on a sixpence, say, or performing a plumbing operation is not inferior to the academic brain, it is just different, and requires a different form of education. But instead of making secondary moderns better and striving to remove the condescending prejudice that had so firmly ensconced itself in the public mind, in the name of equality the exacting standards which stretched to their best those pupils who did have academic brains were relaxed, and the practical education provided by the secondary moderns replaced with substandard academic substitutes. Boo to Grammar Schools. This caucus race mentality became even worse with the replacement of O levels with GCSE’s. Everyone must follow a watered down academic curriculum which favoured neither the academically bright, who were denied opportunity to shine to their uttermost, nor the academically ungifted (but often in other ways highly gifted) pupils who could not cope even with the standards that the lower levels of GCSE demanded.
I would not hesitate to stream education. Everybody should be taught mathematics and English, in the earlier stages by methods much more akin to the rote learning that is now so out of fashion, for creativity cannot flourish if it does not have a firm grasp of its own tools, as a gifted pianist cannot play the piano if he (oh all right she) has not learnt his scales. Beyond that the academically gifted should receive an academic education and the practically gifted a practical education. Well shouldn’t everybody know some history you might say. Well I wouldn’t have pupils spend time learning dates by rote learning in history. I would try to give them an enthusiasm for pursuing the subject after they have left school by taking them to see a Shakespeare history play, or watching a recording of the TV serialization of War and Peace. And so with modern languages – a holiday in France, and science – TV Attenborough and al-Kahlili. But with one great addition. I would devote a great deal of time in all forms of education on introducing pupils to the arts, for it is from the arts that we derive our greatest pleasures and so much of our humanity. At one time ordinary working men reached high standards of civilized mind in workmens’ institutes. Now they read tabloid newspapers.