12 October 2012

A ‘level playing field’?

The provision of free state education used to be described as creating a ‘level playing field’. However, it may be wondered whether the real purpose was to iron out the advantages of genetic IQ.

In the early 1940s, and probably also earlier, it was still acceptable to suggest that the effect of state education would be to oppose and damage the prospects of those with above-average IQs.

The following, for example, is an extract from an essay entitled ‘The Uncommon Man’, in which the novelist and essayist Charles Morgan discusses the oncoming ‘age of the Common Man’, and the educational conformity which he thought would result.
If the governing idea is to be that of the Common Man and all things are to be shaped to his supposed needs, education must conform to his conformity, and educational authorities, with a dutiful eye on the Common Boy, must deny exceptional opportunity to exceptional boys. (*)
I do not know what the powers of ‘educational authorities’ were at the time Morgan wrote this. I believe they were given much greater powers of interference in the 1944 Education Act, so that they subsequently had the right to enquire into, and specify changes in, the running of private schools and the circumstances of those being educated at home.

The essay by Charles Morgan was certainly written before the 1944 Education Act, and about ten years before I was prevented from taking the School Certificate exam (the exam then usually taken at 16) at the age of 13.

In 1944, when Morgan’s collection of essays, Reflections in a Mirror, was published, I was eight or nine, and unaware that I was about to run the gauntlet of a hostile educational system.

However, the ideology which was to shape the Education Act and later education policy was already having some effect on my life, via my parents and my school.

At the small private primary school I attended, I was sheltered from the hostile attention of the local authority and was treated politely, as was everyone else there. When there were periods for reading on one's own, while the other pupils read books from the general collection available in the classroom, the headmistress provided me with more adult books (for example, historical novels which could be regarded as educational).

Yet neither the school nor my parents made any efforts to encourage my attempts to learn sciences or languages, or to make me aware of exams in such things that I could be working for.

When I taxed my mother with this, long after my university career (and my parents’ lives) had been ruined, my mother claimed that there were no exams like the School Certificate that could be taken during the war years.

‘Well, at least’, I would say, ‘I could have been learning some languages, and even sciences, properly so that I could take exams in them as quickly as possible as soon as it became possible to do so.’

In drawing attention to the negative effects of the new ideology, Charles Morgan was expressing a position which is unlikely to be viewed as acceptable nowadays. Nevertheless, the ideology was clearly on the way in even in 1944, and people of Morgan’s class were tacitly accepting the greater part of it. Earlier in the same essay, Morgan wrote:
There are two kinds of law – law that requires and law that forbids. ... To refuse all [law that requires] would be to revert to an extreme policy of laissez-faire, and this is neither possible nor to be desired.

But there is a real distinction between those who wish to preserve and those who, in pursuit of the theory of the Common Man, wish to overthrow that balance between positive and negative law upon which has hitherto rested our whole conception of a community at once orderly and free.
Unfortunately for critics of conformity, once you accept the need for state intervention, and limit yourself to arguing about the detail, you have essentially lost the battle.

* originally published in The Times Literary Supplement, reprinted in Charles Morgan, Reflections in a Mirror, Macmillan, 1944