Education is a facsimile of the class-divided - Fifties thanks to the baby boomers' desire to turn back the clock

24th September 2010 at 01:00

If it is right that the children of the Sixties lived their dream but failed future generations, what went wrong? Was there some sort of collective generational character defect? Or did the freedoms of the Sixties just go to our heads? The answer is neither of the above. The reason is that, though we were children of the Sixties, we were actually children in the Fifties (and the early Sixties) - and Fifties education was dreadful. Not the least of the crimes of the baby-boomer generation is that baby boomers such as Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis have done all they can to take us back to the Fifties.

Both the system and the educational methods employed were designed to prepare us for a rigid, class-ridden society, in which everything that is not compulsory is forbidden, and vice versa. They did not prepare us for the freedoms of the late Sixties.

The system entrenched class divisions. When the 1945 Labour government came to implement the Education Act 1944, education minister Ellen Wilkinson decided reluctantly that a fully comprehensive system was a battle too far.

She created a three-tier system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. Technicals never took off, and by the mid-1950s there were fee- charging schools for those who were to run the country grammars for middle managers and professionals, and secondary moderns for working-class children destined to remain at the bottom of the heap. Of course, people lied about it. Secondary modern pupils had not failed, they had been "selected for a different sort of education". But children, and their parents, knew the truth.

The icons of the Sixties, and the top politicians of the Nineties, from Mick Jagger to his biggest fan Tony Blair, went mostly to grammar or public schools. These were often dreadful, snobbish places, where conformism and religious bigotry were beaten into children. Paul Mackney, former general secretary of the lecturers' union Nafhe, remembers Christ's Hospital School with horror. The boys marched everywhere, like columns of soldiers, often beneath an archway which barked: "Fear God! Honour the King!" Bullying was institutionalised, for it taught "respect". Older boys were allowed to beat younger ones at will. Even today Mackney cannot bear people to hover behind him, because one older boy made it his self- appointed (but officially sanctioned) task to stand behind younger boys and hit some over the head with a huge book.

Gratitude to the wealthy sponsors was compulsory. "Blessed Lord, we yield thee hearty praise and thanksgiving for our founders and benefactors, through whose charitable benevolence thou hast refreshed our bodies at this time," was the grace they said before meals.

Thirteen-year-old Tony Blair went to Fettes, near Edinburgh, where he had to fag for a senior boy. Fags waited on the older boy, making him toast, polishing his shoes, breaking up coal for his fire, cleaning and folding his mud-caked rugby kit, polishing the studs on his rugby boots.

Fettes called itself "The Scottish Eton" and Beaumont, where I was force- fed snobbery and religious bigotry, called itself "The Catholic Eton". They were both 19th-century foundations, rather than ancient ones such as Eton, and had created their own traditions, hoping perhaps to make up in brutality what they lacked in antiquity. To this day I can recite much of the Catholic catechism, for it was the only thing they taught effectively.

New Labour did not bring back beating, but it brought back everything else. The careful balancing act between church and state control of education contained in the Education Act 1944 was destroyed by the explosion of faith schools. Control of much of the education system has been handed to priests (and a few rabbis and imams.) Paul Mackney's wealthy sponsors are now even more powerful in education than they were then, for they are firmly in control of academies. They don't just get a grace; these days they get their logos all over the school.

As state schools struggle with budget cuts and different systems of control, fee-charging schools (which some people, mistakenly, call independent schools) have had a new lease of life.

There is more selection now than there was in 1997, partly because Labour allowed its favoured schools, like academies, to select up to 10 per cent of their intake (they say by "aptitude", rather than ability, but it seems to be the same thing). It is set to increase further under Michael Gove.

The Sixties generation in government brought back the school uniforms it rejected. It argued that uniforms help the police to recognise those who ought to be at school. We are forcing our children into prison uniform so they will be instantly recognisable when they scale their prison walls. It has brought back the rote learning it rejected in the form of a rigid national curriculum and a punishing regime of testing.

The baby boomers won those battles, 40 years ago. Then we threw our new freedoms away, because they no longer mattered to us. We were too old and conventional to enjoy them anymore. We became puritans when we got too old to be libertines. We even had the nerve to call for something like national service, because we had never experienced its miseries. In 2006 Gordon Brown called for an expansion of the schools cadet programme to persuade pupils to volunteer to "put on a military uniform to learn the meaning of discipline and pride in their country".

David Blunkett, The TES reported in 2006, wanted every school leaver to be forced to do six months of compulsory public service, to learn "self- discipline, commitment, leadership and citizenship . A tough enough regime, overseen perhaps by recently demobbed sergeant majors."

The baby-boomer government under Tony Blair provided David Cameron and Nick Gibb with a marvellous platform from which to take schooling back to the Fifties.

What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us? is published by Biteback.

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