25. The ever-changing face of education

The changing face of education 11 to 16

It seems hard to believe, looking back, that in 1944 at the height of the Second War an Education Act was implemented that was to change education in this country for ever.

Education was made free and compulsory up to the age of 15 (later 16). Secondary schools were to be in three main forms: grammar schools, secondary technical schools and secondary modern schools. There were also church schools, direct grant and independent (fee paying) schools, but these were fewer and ran on similar lines.

Entry to the state secondary schools took place at around the age of 11 years and was decided by a group of examinations called the ‘eleven plus’ (11+) and this, along with grammar schools, still exists in some local authorities.

11+ was a set of tests taken within the primary schools; maths, English and verbal-reasoning were the usual. The examinations themselves were very good at doing what they wanted to do, but whether a child’s future should be settles at age 11 became a bone of contention.

On the result of the score achieved in these examinations the children were filtered into the secondary system: high scorers to the grammar schools, then the technical and finally to the secondary modern. My local authority called it ‘the grading exam’ which seems quite sensible.

Simple? Not really. Some authorities had a second chance for borderline candidates (including yours truly) and some had a 13+ examination for candidates who seemed to have been misplaced. Additionally, some authorities had more grammar school places by virtue of having boys-grammar, girls-grammar and mixed-grammar or even all three. The result was, that while one authority had 5% grammar school selection, an adjacent one could have 40%.

Concerned parents who cared or who could afford the fees either bought copies of old papers or sent their children to tutors to be ‘coached’, and there is no doubt that this can work for some children. Indeed ‘crammers’ still exist for those taking GCSE and A-levels.

It should be remembered at that time the country was recovering from wartime conditions and adults were glad of any work they could find and were used to doing what they were told. The job market grew and my friends who left school at 15 were seldom unemployed so the system seemed to be working.

As the 60s began, employment levels began to fall and parents began to question the limits placed on their children, by a system where there were no qualifications at the end of it. O-levels were not generally taken in secondary modern schools. The idea had been that practical education, unconstrained by examinations, would be better for those ‘less gifted academically’.

A new examination was born: the CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education). This began in secondary moderns, but filtered across the whole system, and on the borders between the types of school, both exams were taken by pupils who might fail one or pass the other.

Now it really got complicated. The ‘stigma’ of the secondary modern produced a school of thought that suggested that there should be a new type of school with a ‘comprehensive’ system with no entry examination, no streaming by ability, more subject choice and a ‘brave new world’. The government of the time embraced the idea with open arms and the authorities with enough money built enormous ‘comprehensive schools’ housing thousands of children in purpose built campus sites. The authorities with less money had to cobble together plans involving existing buildings and so in some areas there were middle schools, junior-highs, senior-highs, sixth-form colleges and so on.

Children in the very large schools could easily become isolated as some year-groups were as large as whole schools used to be. Of course it worked well if the head and staff managed it, but some disasters occurred before it settled down. Later in some areas the junior/middle schools re-merged with their older pupils as new buildings replaced the old to become manageable size comprehensives.

During all this change teachers were supposed to manage the two-examination CSE/GCE system and it really wasn’t working well, as a grade-1 CSE was never meant to be equivalent to a ‘C’ grade GCE, but that was how it was perceived by parents and employers. The solution, if such it was, was to combine the exams into a grand cover-all examination the GCSE. The idea daft from the outset was to have single examination to try to avoid the image of failure. Grades were to go from A to G and everybody should fit in there somewhere. “How can we tell who is any good” cried the employers, parents, teachers and universities. “Well we shall call Grade C the borderline” said the powers that be. “Just like it was before you combined the two exams” said the cynics. “Oh goodness no” said the educational idealists “G-grade is still a pass!”

Needless to say the teachers just had to get on with it. The entries are split into ‘levels’ with different papers for different levels and the often forlorn hope that parents can be persuaded that ‘Johnny’ should be entered for Foundation-level making an A-grade unachievable on the grounds that if entered for the Higher-level he may get no grade at all.

That then is roughly how it stands. The government of the day cannot, however, help tampering with the system. The National Curriculum was introduced, where all pupils are obliged to study English maths and science to GCSE level; a worthy idea to bolster these subjects, but in reality it hampered the teaching of the individual sciences in favour of ‘science for all’ type courses.

A return to the pre-1944 School Certificate (continental Baccalaureate) system where a group of subjects must be achieved at one sitting has hovered in the wings for some time, but has never been enforced for fear of reaction from the ‘all men are created equal’ lobby.

Coursework carried-out at home held sway for a time, but the influence of the home situation and the rise of the home computer made this inherently unfair to some pupils and I hope and believe that any course work carried out is monitored carefully within the school environment.

If I have anything to say to the government of the day after 40 years teaching it is Leave It Alone!

Make sure teachers are properly trained and have an effective power to discipline children and parents alike then let them get on with it.