How Britain Imported the American High School

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And how it’s caused problems ever since.

Much is made in the United States of the challenges facing the public-education system. But often overlooked is the reverberating impact the adoption of that model abroad has had — namely, in the U.K.

During the ’60s, British politicians began to remake the United Kingdom’s education system in the image of its counterpart in the United States. This Americanization of public schools has caused huge problems ever since.

Until Harold Wilson’s Labour government ascended to power in 1964, British and American education policy had been very different. Children in the U.K. went to a local elementary school before sitting exams at the age of eleven. The kids who scored highly on these tests were sent to extremely demanding and rigorous institutions called “grammar schools” where they learned Latin, Greek, history, literature, the natural sciences, and, most importantly, how to think clearly according to dictates of logic and philosophy. Children who scored poorly were sent to ordinary high schools, where they learned history, literature, and science to a less rigorous standard and also received some vocational training. The grammar schools and the secondary schools were permeable: Clever 16-year-olds could transfer from high schools to grammar schools if they turned out to be late bloomers. But the two institutions had very different tasks.

The goal of the grammar school was to sift through British society in order to find smart children, regardless of their social or economic background. When these children were found, they were given a world-class public education free of charge. This made sure that the best that has ever been thought, said, or written down by human beings was successfully handed down to the brightest minds of the next generation.

Children came from all walks of life to the grammar school. The sons and daughters of dockers and doctors sat next to one another in classrooms studying the works of Shakespeare, Euclidian geometry, and Plato’s Republic. At the age of 18, they were then shipped off to university to round out their education and take their place in the governing class.

Like most countries of the Old World, the British were aware at that time that the existence of an elite class in society was not only a social fact but a social inevitability. They knew there has never yet existed a country in which a certain social group didn’t colonize elite institutions over time. The old British education system accepted this as a fact of life. Having done so, it tried to mitigate the worst aspects of elitism by making admission to the elite class conditional upon talent and intellect rather than inherited privilege. The goal was not to get rid of elites but to get the right elites.

Previously, the schools that educated England’s ruling class had been private, expensive, and self-consciously aristocratic. And yet, when grammar schools were made free to every able British child early in the last century, the dominance of the private schools began to wane. In 1938–39, kids from British private schools won 62 percent of places at Oxford. In 1958, after years of free, nationwide grammar-school education, this private-school share was down to 53 percent. By 1964–65, it had fallen again, to 45 percent.

After seeing these statistics, the astute reader will probably wonder whether or not wealthy English parents simply colonized the grammar schools the way that wealthy American parents colonize good public schools today. But according to the Gurney-Dixon report of 1954, 64.6 percent of children in grammar schools at that time were from working-class homes. The reign of inherited privilege over British life was being routed, and a truly meritocratic, self-conscious elite, unencumbered by the economic hand that life had dealt them, was on the rise in the U.K.

And then disaster struck.

It started, predictably enough, with a bureaucrat. Sir Graham Savage, an English civil servant, had traveled to the United States frequently during the 1920s, when progressive power over American education theory was at its intellectual zenith. He was greatly impressed by the democratic nature of the new American high schools and admired the way they socialized children of all backgrounds together and thereby dissolved class boundaries. Upon returning to Britain, he drew up plans for new British high schools designed after the American model. Savage admitted openly on several occasions that the new schools would produce worse educational outcomes than the old grammar schools, but he thought this a price worth paying for greater social equality. Like the American progressives from whom he took his lead, his aims were political, not educational.

And so, when the Labour Party took power in 1964, Harold Wilson and his comrades began the process of eradicating grammar schools altogether and replacing them with American-style high schools. The Conservative Party offered no resistance: The Tory education minister closed more grammar schools during the ’70s than any Labour politician had in the ’60s. That education minister’s name, for what it’s worth, was Margaret Thatcher, and her appalling scorched-earth policy on grammar schools (one of which she herself had attended) does weigh against much of the good she did as prime minister during the ’80s.

There are now only a handful of grammar schools left in Great Britain, and their scarcity has turned them into preserves of the wealthy middle-class. Predictably, the old private schools have come roaring back with a vengeance. Graduates of Eton and St. Paul’s, whose aristocratic right to rule was nearly extirpated by the ascendancy of the grammar school, are now firmly ensconced in the seats of power again.

In 1976, after Mrs. Thatcher’s Tudor-style dissolution of the grammar schools, Eric James, a former headmaster, gave an eloquent and moving speech in the House of Lords defending the old order of education that was being vandalized before his eyes. He said:

If I were a High Tory . . . a Tory of a type that now scarcely exists even in cartoons, one who really believes in privilege and keeping the lower orders down, one of the first things I would do would be to get rid of the grammar schools.

By following the lead of American progressives, British politicians have immolated one of their national treasures. Generations of smart kids have been denied the opportunity to raise themselves to the full height of their own abilities, and two great nations, instead of one, have lost entire generations of luminaries to untapped potential as a consequence.

But all is not lost. Americans have a talent for conserving and tending to aspects of British culture that their colonial ancestors brought the New World and that have largely died out in the U.K.: Christianity and constitutional liberty are the two most salient examples. In contrast to Great Britain, there is still a real appetite for large-scale educational reform in the United States, especially among conservatives. The governor willing to rescue grammar-school education from the ruins of the Old World will preside over an educational renaissance the likes of which this country has never seen.

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