Public schools and the educational system

By A L Rowse. Originally published in the <em>New Statesman and Nation</em>, 23 May 1942. Selected

Billed as a comment on education "from a Socialist point of view", this article by the Oxford historian forms part of the general background to the Butler Act of 1944. Though he had twice stood unsuccessfully as a Labour parliamentary candidate, Rowse, aged 39 at the time he wrote this, was never a conventional thinker. He died in 1997, having published more than 100 books.

The proper solution for the difficulties of the public schools is clear. It has been indicated in recent weeks by the amalgamation of Haileybury and the Imperial Service College. There should be many more such amalgamations. The prosperous nineteenth century, with a rising middle-class and the enormous size of the Victorian family, led to a great increase in the number (and the numbers) of the public schools. There are too many of them now, with the decline of the birth-rate and in the incomes of the middle-classes; and some of them are too large for efficient, or rather optimum, working. The sensible solution for the public schools is to concentrate their resources upon the best of their number, and to weed out the really inferior ones. Anyone with experience at the universities will probably agree that it is people who come from the inferior public schools who display most snobbery, the narrowest conventionalism of outlook and the least sense of real standards of intelligence and culture. I am bound in fairness to add that, conversely, I have found the most sympathetic qualities of mind, great intellectual freedom and absence of conventional conformity, among people coming from the best public schools. I do not in the least want these schools to come to an end; on the contrary, I want them to survive and to give them the best chance of survival at the expense of the inferior.

All the same, we do not want the nation’s schools to become mere imitators of them, upholding bogus public-school standards instead of developing their own, for which our post-war society will have greater need than the outworn modes of the nineteenth century. A secondary school headmaster I know, a thoroughly inferior man, said to a public-school friend of mine the other day, "Of course, we look up to you public-school people to give us a lead." Now that is precisely what we do not; that remark is the measure of the man’s unfitness for his job. For it is the job of the secondary schools to develop standards of their own. There are certain definite advantages in day-school education. Oscillating between home and school, the secondary schoolboy has much greater freedom to develop his own mind and character: he does not take such a uniform stamp: he has room in which to call his soul his own: he is nothing like so much at the mercy of that intense barrage of public opinion which boys at boarding schools have to endure. I have noticed in the course of some years at the university that he is much less concerned with personalities and the worthless exchange of personal gossip; he is much more interested in ideas for their own sake and wants to thrash them out, to think his way through. That is not always considered "good form" by public schoolboys. But it is what the nation stands much more in need of than all the "good form" in the world. The one great weakness of the secondary schoolboy is that he is apt to feel inferior when faced with the self-assurance and complacency of his public-school confrère. But that is largely because English society has hitherto conferred social privileges upon the public school. And that will change in time. Even now no secondary schoolboy need feel inferior unless he regards himself as such. I haven’t noticed that the secondary schoolboys of the R.A.F. are inferior to the old public schoolboys of the Army Command.

Take the fundamental emphasis upon character rather than intelligence which has prevailed in the public-school system since the time of Dr. Arnold. (His son did his best to rectify the emphasis; but Dr. Arnold, or rather the English middle-class, was too much for him.) That same middle-class in its decadence since the last war has persistently denigrated intelligence; they never liked intelligence; they feared and distrusted genius; look at the way they treated Lloyd George, whom they kept out of power for years when he was at the height of his powers and prestige, or Mr. Churchill, whom they kept out for a decade. They preferred the second-rate and the third-rate and the nth-rate, the Baldwins and the Chamberlains and Lindleys and Neville Hendersons. They felt safer with them. I wonder if they feel so safe about them to-day? For, of course, a nation can only be safe when it relies on ability and intelligence. Is it any wonder that we have had the disasters we have had in Flanders, in Norway, in Crete, in Libya, in Malaya? The Germans and the Japanese believe in intelligence, and in a sense they deserve their successes. It is utterly unfair to our own men, who have displayed fortitude and courage everywhere, not to give them the most intelligent leadership, foresight and forethought. Yet how can a governing class in decadence, with no belief in intelligence - so different from the great days of Elizabeth and the Cecils, of the Pitts and Canning - give them that? We need and we shall achieve a new leadership or go under.

Yet in the Lords’ Debate the egregious Elton (I am afraid he is not my favourite comic peer, as he is with some), got up to sing the praises of Character and perform once more his well-known turn against intellectuals. (There is nobody more bitter against intellectuals than a failed intellectual.) He wanted "potential leaders of the country subjected to a test of character as well as of intelligence, and contended that education was ripe for that change." As if we didn’t hear about Character ad nauseam in English education already, when what the nation needs is to set more store by intelligence and clear thinking. Yet it is in keeping that the perfect Chamberlainite should take this line: Chamberlainism stood for a narrow, blinkered obstinacy, intellectual obtuseness, respectability in excelsis, an unbelievable smugness, the reign of humbug - and on the other side a refusal to think things out. We are now having to pay the price for it.

Nor do we think that more religious teaching in the schools is the way to salvation. All the old men - nearly all the speakers in the debate, it was notable, were old men - may go on talking humbug till they are blue in the face, but it doesn’t alter the fact that the vital intellectual currents of our time have moved away from religious belief. It is true that our society is still heavily biased in favour of expression of conformist views in these matters, though everybody knows they no longer command the assent of the intellectual leaders of our time. In these circumstances it is very inappropriate for these old men, no longer in touch with the time, to legislate for us and our juniors who will be living in a vastly changed world. There is at the moment a regular campaign of the religious sects to slip in more religious, and even doctrinal, teaching into the schools while everybody’s back is turned and attention is directed to the war. There is serious danger - as never before - of the sects composing their differences in order to face the State with a joint demand, a united front. Already some of their leaders have spoken in a most threatening way to the Board of Education, of a demand which the Board will be unable to resist. It is important that the Board’s hand should be strengthened in this matter, and that it will act on the view that the State is the proper guardian of the rights of children as citizens to be.

I am now concerned to consider changes in the organisation, curricula, etc., in the national system of education. I would only say that development should take the line of strengthening the vocational side. The education of children could be made much more real and effective by bringing it into closer relation with the natural and occupational background of their lives. In country districts, for instance, it should be brought into relation with agriculture and horticulture. The school-gardens of wartime are an excellent institution. But the whole thing needs to be extended and systematised, linked up with science, biological and physical. One can see the enormous effect it could have in time in bringing about, what is so badly needed, a more scientific attitude to agriculture in this country. One can see the link-up of the country schools with the Agricultural Training Colleges and rural colleges of the Cambridgeshire type. It would mean a new impulse in the training of teachers, which should be, like the new education in these schools, less bookish and more practical. And similarly for industrial districts and towns, where the schools could be brought into closer relation with industries and crafts, and education directed towards the sciences, social as well as physical. Naturally, for secondary education looking to the universities, the course would be less practical, and more intellectual and literary.

But ultimately more important than questions of curricula and examinations, is the whole question of the relation of the educational system to the social structure of the country. At present it reflects all too accurately the pre-last war class divisions which are in process of being transformed. We need to remove the dead hand of the old social order upon education: that is why there has been no new vital impulse in English education since Morant and the Act of 1902. Have you observed, for example, the real function of the governors of secondary schools? It is nothing to do with education as such, for they have nothing to contribute. Their real function is to keep an eye on the activities of the teachers and see that they don’t say anything too progressive in school - or for that matter out of school. They exercise a very powerful dissuasive influence, keeping teachers from playing their proper part in the political and social life of the country. I have noticed that influence operating with a number of school-teachers in my experience. No wonder school-teachers as a class suffer from inferiority complex, that there is something feeble about them corporately. It is due to the system under which they have been brought up.

We need to do two things to free them and enable them to play their proper part. First, we should abolish the useless, or pernicious, system of governors of secondary schools: they contribute nothing to education: they are just watchdogs of an effete social order that is going under anyway. Secondly, we need to bring all teachers together into one great National Union of Teachers, without snobbish divisions between secondary school and elementary school-teachers, between headmasters and assistant masters, etc. ; and then to bring the whole organisation, along with other black-coated workers such as civil servants, into the Trades Union Congress. It would have a good effect on both. It would enable the teachers to see themselves as part of the organised body of workers in the community; it would give them a new confidence, a new pride in their job and enable them to make their contribution in the shaping of the new social order.