This fixation with educational equality was fine for the children of other parents, but when it threatened to ‘eradicate their own privilege by turning their children into mannerless, uncultured ignoramuses’ the egalitarians suddenly became less enthusiastic. They were faced with the choice of either ‘a state school in an expensive area of town, which selects through wealth, so paying their fees through their mortgage’, or to pay fees directly to an independent public school, which would be contrary to their principles.
Hitchens depicts the outlook of the British public schools system as based upon ‘tradition and deference, quite unapologetic about privilege, willing to sustain elites, foster their growth and encourage competition in work and sport’. He regarded them as deeply conservative institutions, necessarily so since ‘unless there is agreement about what is to be taught, who is to teach it and how it is to be measured, there can be no education’.
Hitchens described grammar schools as providing an ‘ethos, timetable and shape modelled on 19th century public schools, organised in houses, patrolled by prefects, housed in crenellated , vaguely baronial or churchy buildings’. As a consequence of this conservative outlook they came under attack by the left as obstacles to equality through the preservation of tradition, authority and higher culture. According to Hitchens the left were pleased to see the ‘dragooning of pupils into great education factories in modern glass cubes’ resulting in an end to ‘religious worship, hymn singing, honours boards, blazers, prize days and prefects’.
In mounting an attack upon grammar schools the progressives were not concerned about education but rather a means to further pursue their obsessions about ‘class and hierarchy, authority, permanence, deference and change’. Put simply, their purpose was social engineering. Leftist educational propaganda of the time called for ‘a more closely knit society’ in which ‘conditions in all different schools must be broadly based’ that would prevent any child from entering upon a secondary school career ‘with the stigma of failure’. The Tory party of the time robustly challenged these assumptions by declaring that comprehensives would lead to ‘free mediocrity for all in a mass factory of so-called education’. This would result in ‘the clever child’s progress being held up by the gropings of the sub educated’.
Hitchens considers that ‘proper education is a fundamentally conservative activity, based on the assumption that a body of knowledge exists, is in the hands of the adult and educated, and can be passed on in measurable ways, by disciplined learning reinforced with authority’. He regarded the continued existence of public schools to have ‘frustrated the ultimate levelling purpose of the comprehensive system, and provided an inconvenient outside measure by which comprehensive failure can be judged’. Whilst Hitchens is no doubt correct that public schools deliver results and that many comprehensives are sink schools, he overlooks the fact that the former can select their pupils, whereas the latter have no control over admissions which will include many children with low educational motivation.
Hitchens singled out the 1967 Plowden report for castigation, accusing it of ‘encouraging the spread of discovery learning, and a bonfire of old fashioned desks and blackboards’. The result of these ‘progressive’ innovations was that many children could no longer read, write or count and that ‘standards of behaviour, of self-control, of ability to respond to authority, or concentration on any task, have sunk’. He condemned the move away from whole class teaching to the ‘new child centred world of discovery’ in which desks were arranged in groups rather than in rows facing the teacher. This new informal design ‘was hostile to the old, hierarchical methods which handed down knowledge from on high, often in the form of rules and truths learned by heart’.
He also condemned the Plowden recommendation to abolish corporal punishment, despite having the overwhelming support of teachers, and agreement by a considerable majority of parents to its continued use. Hitchens is right in justifying corporal punishment on the grounds that ‘ a rebuking smack, slap or blow from a ruler on the hand, are all symbols of authority’ which ‘define the limit of a child’s behaviour, and make it plain that the child is subject to the adult'.
Hitchens is right to stress the importance of public schools to the national education system by preserving educational standards and academic rigour. However, because of the financial barrier only about 7% of pupils are able to attend them. Grammar schools were an effective substitute freely accessible to all pupils who passed the 11 plus entrance exam. In pursuit of the leftist agenda of egalitarianism most have now been abolished although a few survive in Tory controlled areas. Hitchens fails to mention the main advantage of grammar schools in that they facilitate social mobility. They allow bright pupils to escape from the anti learning background of most of their peers and to provide them with an ethos and environment that is conducive to the fostering of academic learning.
Hitchens ignores completely the fate of children who fail to make it into grammar schools, nor does he address the perception of many that secondary moderns were widely seen as second rate institutions. Clearly not all children are receptive to the largely academic education which grammar schools were intended to deliver. To meet their needs technical schools should be established in which academic, vocational and practical skills can be taught, underpinned by a sound grounding in literacy and numeracy.
Hitchens is right to dismiss the child centred approach of the Plowden report which is detrimental to a structured system of learning, and to adult guidance and supervision that is vital to children in their early years. He is courageous in his support for a measured return of corporal punishment, necessary to maintain discipline and to establish boundaries of acceptable behaviour. However, there should be no return to the free for all which allowed a minority of sadistic teachers to brutalise their pupils.