A relic of the Victorian middle class
While upper class public schools focused largely on the classics, and working class elementaries on the three Rs, middle class schools taught a range of academic subjects. These included English, maths, history, geography, science and Latin or a modern language. The reason for this, Professor White argues, was religious.
He says: "Personal salvation was a central preoccupation, and for this one had to possess a solid knowledge of the structure and manifold glories of God's universe ...
"Our task on Earth is dutifully to follow God's prescriptions.
"To make the individual's well-being the focus of education would have seemed to most Victorians a recipe for selfishness."
Education was still seen in these terms in the 20th century. In 1923, Fred Clarke, a future director of the Institute of Education, wrote: "The ultimate reason for teaching long division to little Johnny is that he is an immortal soul."
But the academic curriculum also became a badge indicating membership, or suitability for membership, of the middle classes.
Professor White argues that when, as Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker introduced the subject-based national curriculum in 1988, he was imposing these middle class values on all children.
"The effect ... has been to make it difficult for many children not from a middle class background to adjust to a highly academic school culture," he says.
And, he adds, the notion of saving pupils' souls remains.
"The prospect of social salvation - stepping on an escalator to higher education and a well-paid job - may well have become a modern counterpart."