"The English Grammar School" by John Beavan

Posted by Rachel Kneale on 21 Jul 2022

Modified by Rachel Kneale on 21 Jul 2022

Old Hall Frontage 1930s

John Beavan, later to be known as Baron Ardwick of Barnes, attended MGS between 1924 and 1927. He had a successful career in journalism, serving as editor of the Manchester Evening News, London editor of The Guardian and editor of The Daily Herald. He later become political advisor to the Mirror Group and a Labour member of the European Parliament. Through his first wife, Anne, he was the grandfather of Carrie Johnson, nee Symonds. In the Summer edition of Ulula 1963, John Beavan outlined his views on the development and significance of the English grammar school:

"In the past year English grammar schools have become as controversial as the public schools. It is alleged that they take in boys imbued with a precious set of moral values unique to the working-class; and that they turn them out six or seven years later tainted by the notoriously corrupt values of the English middle class. No longer, by this time, do they believe in each for all and all for each, and solidarity among the under-privileged. Obsessed by personal ambition, they hack off their roots, turn their backs on mum and dad and the old two-up and two-down, and eventually decamp for the spiritless life of the middle-class suburb. It would matter less if their new life brought them happiness. But it does not. Desperately they try to adapt to the esoteric style of life of the suburbanites, to imitate posh accents and to forget their humble though honest past. Probably they finish up by voting Liberal, the ultimate gesture of the despairing declasse. The fault, of course, lies with the grammar school. It imitates the public school. Caps, blazers, colours, prefects, sometimes even a house system; rugger, squash, no peaching, Speech Days, Forty Years On and collections for the poor lads' clubs.

Now as a Manchester man and as a Socialist, born in Beswick, brought up in Ardwick, I should like to know what the uniquely admirable virtues of working-class life are supposed to be. I know what the virtues are: of neighbourliness, mutual aid in trouble, warm relationships (and fierce hatreds) within the extended family. But these virtues are not unique in my experience. As a journalist. I have commuted between the classes and I go on commuting between Coronation Street and, say, the Cliveden-type country house. I do not find that these virtues become thinner as I ascend the social scale or thicker as I descend it. Nor when I go to France or to America do I find that they are more or less frequent in their occurrence. There is, however, a deceptive difference caused by variations in propinquity. The open plan of the suburb, the common possession of telephones and motor cars, makes it possible to seek the qualities of neighbourliness further afield. The suburb itself replaces the street as the social unit. The extended family is usually further apart in distance but not necessarily in time.

It is an old habit to speak ill of the English suburb. The intelligentsia and the artists, who find a natural need to live together in a particular quarter of a city (Chelsea, Greenwich Village, Montparnasse) have long been vocal enemies of the suburb. So, for purely snobbish reasons, have been the country-dwelling upper classes who despised the bourgoisie of the Bowdons and the Wimbledons. Yet the English suburb has been enthusiastically imitated all over the world, and was regarded by Socialist pioneers as the nearest approach to a William Morris Utopia. Burnage Garden Village was, and probably still is, a hotbed of Socialist idealists. And Welwyn Garden City has always attracted Socialist M.P.s. The idea that the suburb is incapable of providing a setting for a good life, that it is in any way inferior to the grim terraced streets of the old towns, is a new piece of Left Wing intellectual snobbery arising out of a callow romanticism. Certainly our social life is impoverished at all levels of society. This arises not out of environment but out of a current psychological reluctance to embrace commitment and attachment. The decline of religious faith, the philosophic doubts of those who might have provided a lay morality as a substitute for religion, the failure of political parties to bring their ideologies up to date, and the superficially superior entertainment provided by commercial concerns, have all contributed to the disintegration of organized social life. But it should be remembered that at no time since the Industrial Revolution have the mass of people had any real attachments, beyond accidental ones of the street and factory and those dependent on kinship. The zealous trade unionists, the active Labour Party members, the participating Co-operators, the regular church and chapel goers have always been a tiny minority of the urban millions. And the unattached, uninterested, non-participating masses have been the despair of the evangelizing minority of the working-class. In short, there never was a golden age of a socially integrated self-conscious working-class. As any veteran of the Labour Movement knows, there was always an active minority and a huge, ignorant, indifferent mass living hand to mouth materially and morally.

It is curious to hear Socialists criticizing the grammar schools because they turn out ambitious, non-attached, striving individualists instead of cooperative people capable of enjoying and contributing to a collective life. It seems to be difficult to indict the grammar schools for this crime and also for imitating the public school tradition. For the public school rebels —Orwell, Connolly and so forth—were rebels because they felt the pressures of the public school inhibited their creative idiosyncrasies. They were Byronic romantics. It was the claustrophobic corporate spirit of the public school, the claims on the individual of the various collectivities, the form, the house, and the dear old School itself, the tiresome emphasis on the virtue of the team, which nauseated the boys who yearned to be poetes maudits. They fell into the classic error of their Bloomsbury mentors, which one of the most eminent of them, Maynard Keynes, defined with his usual sharpness. They were unaware of the need to contribute to that good order in society of which they were the beneficiaries. The virtues of the public school were obscured. What it was doing— and quite successfully was to take in the sons of the new rich tycoons whose parents were grinding the faces of the poor, to expose them to the sons of men in the poorly paid public services and to teach them that monetary values were unimportant, that private opportunism was of limited value to society, and that social responsibility was the price of social privilege.

My own observations of Sixth Formers during the past few years lead me to suppose that the rebellion of the 1930's in the public schools is now in the 1960's widespread in the grammar schools; that among the most intelligent there is no longer an excess of corporate conformism but the very opposite, an unhealthy suspicion of all ideologies and comprehensive systems. These attitudes are shared by some of the masters who are extremely marginal characters: New Statesman neutralists, antiparty, shallow rationalists, vague social optimists with chips on everything from the shoulders downwards. I hope I am doing them an injustice; that they are not all as some of those I have met have appeared to be. In other words, what is wrong with the grammar schools is that they have not incorporated the old public school virtues; that they have forgotten that a certain amount of conformity and identity of view is as essential to a society as is a certain amount of non-conformity and revolt. In England today there is a boring conformity of taste and a disturbing absence of common views and values.

The danger of the grammar school today is not that it robs the working class boy of his native values; such as they are, these values are usually fragile and confused. Surely it is that the school itself does too little to present, for choice or rejection, a consistent set of values. This would matter less if in the schools there was a continuous search for a new and rational system to replace the old, unacceptable one. I doubt whether there is such a search or that there can be one as long as the decline continues of morally useful subjects such as literature and history. It seems to me iniquitous to drop these subjects at about the age of fourteen or fifteen. A boy of these years may easily have reached the required standard of proficiency in them. But his experience of life is too limited to make them meaningful. Should the grammar schools then take over the entire public school tradition? By no means. It had conspicuous shortcomings. It was usually philistine and at some schools it was anti-intellectual and insular and class conscious in the Punch manner of suggesting that foreigners and the British poor were funny. The attitude of concern for the under-privileged was real enough; it was a paternal rather than a fraternal attitude. And the public schools—apart from the Left Wing rebels—refrained from questioning heredity's right to privilege.

The problem of the grammar schools, I suggest, is to select what is valid in the tradition -the public spiritedness, the idea of service to the community, the denial of self-centred individualism and the denigration of monetary values; and to reject what is insupportable today—a charitable patronizing attitude to all non-public school types and a conservative attitude to outmoded institutions. There should, I am sure, be a grammar school ethos; there probably is one at some grammar schools; and it should be avowed without shame or embarrassment."

Comments

Martin Greer (Jennings)

0 Likes Posted 3 months ago

So a century of interesting things happening.  There's actually just…so much more now!!!  Could never sum it up in even a few paragraphs.  Everyone is busy and don't have time out from their work!  Thanks it is a lot to keep up with.

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