34 years today since his death: Tony Crosland’s challenge to Ed Miliband

by Kevin Meagher

FOR an intellectual he sure had a potty mouth. “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland”.

So said Anthony Crosland, Labour’s greatest education secretary, who was very nearly as good as his word. He lit the touchpaper for the comprehensive revolution in the 1960s, consigning the vile eleven-plus exam to the scrapheap, opening the way for bright kids from ordinary backgrounds to get a rounded schooling.

Until then, three quarters of children who “failed” the eleven-plus were shuffled off to a secondary modern, on the basis of a single examination, so they could spend the next fifty years “working with their hands” like the epsilons in Brave New World.

Today marks the 34th anniversary of Crosland’s untimely death at the age of 59, depriving James Callaghan of a foreign secretary, but robbing Labour of a sane and principled voice who may just have helped the party avoid the intellectual atrophy of the late 1970s and the descent into lunacy of the early 1980s.

If he were around today, Crosland would have been at the centre of the debate about “social mobility”. But it’s a fair bet he would have no time for the wishy-washy versions often put forward. He would warn against paying lip service to a potentially radical, transformative concept and argue that the risk for Labour is that social mobility becomes a nebulous, platitudinous strapline to define a sentiment, rather than a steel-edged intention. Just as the big society has become for the Conservatives.

Of course, some Tories may enthuse about creating a big society. But they will all settle for a small state. They may buy into the Burkean guff about the value of “small platoons”, but they prefer tax cuts and acquisitive wealth when all is said and done.

Even the Tories, however, find themselves able to pledge fealty to social mobility. David Willetts and Michael Gove, in particular, have made grand speeches about it, attempting to appropriate the cause for the right. No Cameron or Clegg utterance is complete without perfunctory references. The government even crossed enemy lines to appoint Alan Milburn as its social mobility czar.

Needless to say, the Tories’ real commitment doesn’t pass first base. The squalid auctioning of internships at investment banks at their recent “black and white ball” says it all. Their world is a closed shop of private, inter-generational privilege. Oiks are not invited.

But Labour doesn’t get off scot-free. Frontbenchers talk freely about social mobility – it has that suitably wonkish vagueness about it. Yet the idea – that the poor and the powerless can and must be able to transcend their origins – is potentially revolutionary.
But is it one that Labour is ready fully to embrace? Ed Miliband’s speech in Gateshead earlier this month framed social mobility as “the British promise”, with each generation standing on the shoulders of its predecessors. As a way of widening the debate to bring the fretful middle classes into the equation, it was a canny move. Middle England has given way to the “squeezed middle”, worried and resentful that social mobility is heading into reverse for their kids with the prospect of a university degree and owning a home beyond their means.

But real social mobility must start with education and life chances and a fundamental belief that there are no such things as geniuses and imbeciles. We are, each of us, somewhere on a sliding scale in between, depending on how our intelligence and value is measured; and each deserves the opportunity to make the most of theirs.
So private schools, those citadels of social immobility, may teach a version of history that lauds imperial warmongers and drill dates into kids’ heads in order to shoehorn them through exams, but it does not make them smarter or more deserving than ordinary kids at a comprehensive. Frankly, David Cameron himself proves the point. An expensive Eton education did not seem to have taught him the point at which the Yanks joined the Second World War.

So what should social mobility mean in practice? Well, if only seven per cent of young people are educated in private schools, but they routinely make up a quarter of undergraduates in redbrick universities, rising to half of all students at Oxbridge, why not limit them to seven per cent of university places?

That single act would do more to end our educational apartheid and generational inequality than just about anything else.
An extreme suggestion? But is it more fanciful than the political groupthink that obliges us to swallow the fiction that private schools providing a fee-paying service in the marketplace should be treated as charities – subsidised by taxpayers through the non-levying of VAT – as the wealthy and highly ambitious buy advantages for their children at the expense of everyone else’s?

The alternative is tinkering at the edges. Shaking up internships, as some Labour politicians propose, is all very well, but it is just a symptom of the malaise. If there is one thing that Labour must learn from David Cameron it is to govern boldly.

Crosland’s great contribution was to occupy the commanding heights of the debate about equality and fairness in education. It helped that he drove through policy with single-minded panache, helping make equality not only fashionable, but seemingly inevitable. A point Ed Miliband made in an earlier speech to the Fabians when he argued that “the power of successful governments and the movements that sustain them come from fashioning a new consensus which frames political debate”.

But that is what was all too often missing during the New Labour years: the willingness to force back privilege and elitism through a combination of moral suasion and intellectual dominance. Crosland succeeded in turning a third of grammar schools comprehensive during his stint at education, but it was Margaret Thatcher who closed down more grammars when she ran the education department in the early 1970s.

Somewhere along the way, Labour has forgotten how to dominate the intellectual landscape, governing for 13 years in the shadow of Thatcherism. When Labour stood tall, real achievements, such as the minimum wage, were the result. When it did not, the rancid status quo remained: David Blunkett slapped down when he floated the idea of levying VAT on private school fees or Peter Mandelson unilaterally declaring that Labour was “intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich”.

Sex may have begun in 1963 according to Philip Larkin, but the sixties were also supposed to have sounded the death knell for our old ruling elite and the dawn of a meritocratic age where working class kids broke through in politics, the civil service, the media and the arts. Alas, more elite public schoolboys are at the top of government today than at any time since the advent of colour television.

The boulder is rolling back down hill. Last year’s intake of MPs saw the number who went to private schools rise to 35%. More old boys than new politics. Still, we should be thankful; at least it’s less than our judges. Three quarters of our bewigged friends were privately educated.

The last Labour government succeeded on all sorts of measures. Unfortunately, it only scratched the surface as far as social mobility was concerned. Flying the standard now is a radical undertaking; but Labour politicians should observe a self-denying ordinance in even using the term if they are not serious about its implications.

That is Crosland’s challenge to us: chiselling fuzzy slogans into hard-edged policy, smashing the arguments for preserving entrenched wealth and opportunity and making the right dance to our tune – in the way even Margaret Thatcher was briefly forced to do.

That is the benchmark for all those proclaiming social mobility as their cause. Let its genuine and glorious pursuit be Crosland’s epitaph.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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18 Responses to “34 years today since his death: Tony Crosland’s challenge to Ed Miliband”

  1. Reuben says:

    Sorry but flying the standard of social mobility, and focusing on the politics of meritocracy is not as the author says, a radical undertaking. Nor is it stepping out from under the intellectual shadow of thatcherism. The disparity in wealth, power and living standards between an investment banker and the person who cleans their office is offensively unjust, regardless of who gets to occupy those positions. Either we adopt the politics of equal ops Toryism, focusing on making sure that we all start the rate from the same point, or we ask bigger questions, about the way society is structured, about the kinds of jobs, and the well-being of whoever it is that ends up on the bottom. That’s not hard left trotskyism, that’s social democracy. Kevin Meagher may if he wish choose to take the former approach, but if so he should not position himself as some kind of labour radical.

  2. Julian says:

    One point of fact. Private schools are not exempt from VAT because they are charities. They are exempt because education is exempt. e.g. Universities and private schools both charge for education and both are exempt from VAT. You may think it right that private schools should charge VAT but you’d have to come up with some clever legal language that let universities off. Both are non-profit. Both are selective. Both are independent organisations. Both charge fees.

    “So what should social mobility mean in practice? Well, if only seven per cent of young people are educated in private schools, but they routinely make up a quarter of undergraduates in redbrick universities, rising to half of all students at Oxbridge, why not limit them to seven per cent of university places?”

    Why not? Well, unless you believe that pupils at private schools form an identical mix of abilities to those at state schools, you are saying getting into university should depend not on a child’s ability, but on the life lottery of where their parents decided to send them to school. That strikes me as a statement of exactly the problem you are trying solve. Swapping one lot of children who you think are discriminated against with another lot, who you are happy to see suffer because their parents are rich and vote Tory, hardly seems fair.

    Perhaps you really do believe there is absolutely no difference between children educated privately and those educated in state schools. And I only mean different on your “sliding scale” between “geniuses and imbeciles”. If that’s the case, I’d like to see some evidence that it’s true rather than just a statement of ideological dogma. The fact that so many more privately educated children get into university, even where the university does its utmost to fair, suggests either that private schools select a more able intake or do a better job of educating them. Either way, a higher proportion would seem suited to a university education.

    “Last year’s intake of MPs saw the number who went to private schools rise to 35%.”

    Won’t you at least consider the possibility that this has been caused by the removal of the opportunity for “bright kids from ordinary backgrounds” to have a state-provided academic education? I’m not arguing that we should have kept the 11 plus but, for those who passed it, the education was undoubtedly good. A certain amount of baby seems to have been thrown away with the bathwater.

    The real failure of the comprehensive experiment is the realisation that making everything equal doesn’t make everything good. It has been more important that no one should receive an advantage than that academic excellence should be available for those who can take advantage of it. To argue that all we need is one final push to eliminate the last vestiges of “privilege” is to avoid tackling what is actually wrong in education. Is the reason schools fail so many children because 7% of children are not allowed to be in them? Well, let’s ban private schools completely (never mind half measures like putting VAT on school fees). And what will happen? The leafy suburbs and rural towns with good schools will see property prices go even higher as families move near them to get their children in. And still, the children who now suffer from poor education will suffer the same. We need to change the focus onto making poor schools better, not fantasising about how we can eliminate those that already do a good job and hope that then, magically, all the problems will be solved.

  3. william says:

    This is just plain ‘chip on my shoulder stuff’.The reason why nearly half Oxbridge undergraduates went to private schools (20 percent,1970)is the collapse in teaching standards in the state system under both Labour and Tory governments.A big thankyou to the NUT.

  4. Errm says:

    With the greatest respect if this article isnt a joke then its absolutely nuts.
    The death of the Grammar School system is clearly the greatest single cause for the near non-existent social mobility we have today. Now a childs future is not determined by his ability, it is based on how much money their mummy and daddy have. Now this ‘apartheid’ you speak of isnt based on a persons intellect, it is based on the class they were born into.
    This is Tony Croslands legacy, he has not only ‘destroyed every grammar school’ but gone some way to making the country a hell of a lot worse for it, which is where the childish politics of envy gets you.
    btw, i failed the 11 plus.

  5. Terry says:

    Some claim to be socialists. Many in the Labour Party’s inner circle like Mandelson were grammar school-educated. It offered a chance for advancement yet they were cancelled by Labour, though also by Thatcher if this is true! That is the first I’ve heard of that but I cannot say otherwise.

    The grammar school system was inevitably imperfect, selection brutal perhaps, yet it offered many from humble origins a chance for advancement. I doubt there has been anything before or since that has managed to lift so many up.
    How quick they are to speak of social mobility who enjoyed such benefits, yet who remove the ladder from others, still believing it will work. I heard Mandelson argue this case on Andrew Neil’s recent programme concerning the current crop of MPs from ALL parties.

    When I read words like that from someone like Crossland it is immediately clear that there is so much spite behind the idea that it is bound to fail. It’s the classic Leftist chip-on-the-shoulder envy thing, and that is always doomed to failure in the end, not perhaps because it failed to kill off grammar schools but because it offered nothing more positive in return. Look around you.

    It pains me to say it but I think Britain is finished. Whilst I have issues with his peacetime record I am not so pusillanimous as to fail, as so many on the Left do, to acknowledge our debt to him. Here is what he had to say of socialism and latterly I regret to say that I largely agree:- ‘Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery’.

    If only people would stop fighting old battles with such hatred and envy in their hearts. It is stultifying and ultimately self-defeating for all concerned. This does not mean that I disagree with all your objectives. Merely that I dislike the thought processes that drive them, even if they are unconscious. I also doubt the method.

  6. Henrik says:

    It’s the same old confusion of equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. The ’45 Education Act was truly radical and was the engine of social mobility until Labour trashed it, in a well-meaning attempt to ‘sort things out’. Rather than destroy the grammar schools, the obvious (but expensive) thing to do was to improve the secondary moderns.

  7. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Crosland was bloody useless. If he’d actually accomplished anything in terms of social mobility, Oxbridge wouldn’t be over 40% privately-educated – and plenty of those of us who made it from the state sector went to grammar schools or things that were almost grammar schools. There are fewer scholarship kids than there were in the late 1940s.

    Grammar schools were (still are) a blunt and unfair instrument that often advantaged the middle classes at the expense of the working classes. Crosland’s accomplishment was to make something even worse, advantaging neither at the expense of the upper classes.

    And suggestions like an arbitrary quota on private school pupils aren’t any better. Badly thought-out class war politics of the sort the left of the Labour Party could never get away with. Radicalism, yes. Policy thought up on the back of a beer mat, no.

  8. Alun says:

    The idea that grammar schools were responsible for the high levels of social mobility in the post-war period is amusing. The main factor, quite obviously, was the long post-war economic boom, that one occasion in history when a rising tide actually did lift all boats. Remove that from the picture and the situation changes radically.

  9. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Alun: I think you’re right that most social mobility was not down to grammar schools. It was down to the increased availability of jobs not requiring heavy physical labour and offering good pay.

    But that generally covers social mobility a rung or two above where your parents came from. Bigger jumps tend to require university, both because of the need for a higher level of education and because of Britain’s obsession with status, with a degree from a prestigious university being a totemic indicator that you are middle class. Graduates from university, whatever their origins, could then rise to the heights of the professions.

    And whilst grammar schools did not benefit most (as secondary moderns got ignored) they did benefit those working-class kids who beat the system to get in and thrived there.

    I’d argue that the increasing predominance of independently-educated men and women at the top of their professions can be at least partly put down to the removal of the escalator that brought talented working-class kids to the best educational establishments. Unless we can get more kids from poor or average backgrounds into elite backgrounds, this trend is only going to continue.

    Whilst the rising tide did lift all boats, some boats were lifted faster than others. If we’re going to see real social mobility, we need to work out how to repeat that.

  10. Kevin Meagher says:

    Guess you have to be a comprehensive school boy to really get it…

  11. N J Mayes says:

    “Alas, more elite public schoolboys are at the top of government today than at any time since the advent of colour television. The boulder is rolling back down hill.” This is a direct result, as other commenters have pointed out, of the grammar school generation retiring and not being replaced by people who went to comprehensives, as the latter have simply not enjoyed the same level of education as the former. You needn’t have passed the 11+ to see that if you make education less demanding for working-class children, you will leave the Etonians to take over the country again. Whatever his intentions were, Crosland clearly failed by any possible measure.

    By the way, I am a comprehensive schoolboy — and am fed up with privately and grammar school-educated socialists telling me what a great idea comprehensives are.

  12. Kevin Meagher says:

    NJ – not guilty on last charge. See previous post…

    But not sure what you and other posters envisage as the alternative to the comprehensive ideal?

  13. Alun says:

    “And whilst grammar schools did not benefit most (as secondary moderns got ignored) they did benefit those working-class kids who beat the system to get in and thrived there.”

    Sure. But there’s the problem with the education system pre-Crosland right there. While a minority of working class children benefited, most didn’t (and if the obvious Socialist case for why that’s a problem isn’t good enough, it could also be pointed out that the long-term impact of that was less than brilliant for the economy). It could be argued that the system increased social mobility, yes, but it also entrenched objective class divisions at a time (the one time) in which those were actually and obviously weakening.

    “I’d argue that the increasing predominance of independently-educated men and women at the top of their professions can be at least partly put down to the removal of the escalator that brought talented working-class kids to the best educational establishments.”

    You’re making the mistake of assuming that the impact of the old system would have remained the same despite all else that changed in the decades following its abolition. Don’t abolish selective education and what we probably have now is either (and this would largely come down to a political decision at some point) a system where selection is far more effectively segregated by background than during the post-war period, or a system in which the vast majority of children go to an expanded range of grammar schools, while an unfortunate minority end up in residual schools for the residuum and are f*cked for life.

  14. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Alun, I largely accept both those points. I’m not sure what your evidence is that class divisions were weakening at the time, but you’re certainly right that the few working-class kids making it to the top weren’t changing the social structure, merely being absorbed into the elite.

    As the product of a modern grammar school, I’d absolutely agree that segregation by background would have been a continuing problem. My qualm would be that this has happened anyway (look at house prices) and that at least when we had the pretence of selecting based on native ability there was the chance we could have moved towards a system less blunt and less vulnerable to coaching than the 11 plus.

    None of this is a defence of grammar schools. My argument is that Crosland didn’t take away the negatives, but did minimise the positive elements of the old system. The obvious corollary to that is that we need a new system, but I won’t pretend to be even halfway qualified to think up a whole new solution.

  15. Bill Crocker says:

    The contributions above stimulated several ideas to come to the surface of my consciousness. I trust that the following are relevant.

    How anyone imagines that it is possible to improve society by opposing excellence is beyond me. It starts by confusing “equality of opportunity” with “equality”. The latter is not achievable. Believing that there are no such things as geniuses and imbeciles results in two things. In order to achive “equality” KM must necessarily discourage expressions of genius in case this might encourage resentment (only true of lazy people of course). Sadly the belief also results in inadequate provision for those who genuinely need help to be as self reliant as possible. Tony Crosland was just one of the most vociferous proponents of the creed of “If everyone can’t have it, no-one is going to have it”. He was rich enough not to suffer for his beliefs.

    The great mistake in British state funded education was not the creation of an academic stream (Grammar Schools and “red-brick” universities), it was the denigration, mis-management and under-funding of the technical stream. Today’s successful economies finance both academic and technical education. An understanding that we need academics to generate ideas and technically able people to develop them has escaped every recent administration in Britain. I suppose that the thought is that if politicians do not pander to the myth of “equality” they won’t get elected.

    The Labour movement has to shoulder the majority of the blame. Yes, the 11+ was devisive, but mainly because it did not allow late developers to join the academic stream, and because there was the idea that one could “fail” the assessment. It is ironic that most of the destroyers of grammar schools except Crosland were grammar school educated. Successful comprehensive schools have embedded within them what are effectively a “grammar school” and separate less academic sections. A good school keeps pupils of similar abilities together to maximise teaching resources. Good schools also assess students to make sure that all needs continue to be met. A concept of so-called “fairness” that bans separating different abilities disadvantages the academic and does little or nothing for the practical child. Of course a complete division between academic and practical is false and most successful people have a combination of talents, all of which need nurturing.

    If Tony Crosland had expressed the ideal of making every school as good as the best in the country it would have been laudible. Smashing institutions for idealogical reasons is vile and was taken to extremes by Pol Pot – it is only a matter of degree.

    The idea that if a few pieces in the jigsaw are misplaced one should throw the whole thing in the air and hope that it comes down arranged as a coherent picture is insane. No society can improve by destroying the honestly successful, we can only get better by correcting under-performing systems.

    Politicians can, however, never micro-manage a country. They should restrict their efforts to creating the conditions for self-improvement and reward for successful effort.

    To have a system that concentrates on reward for honest achievement is hard on the section of the population that has been fed the idea that they are owed an income whether they make an effort or not. I do not expect an apology from those who created that lie, with whatever intention.

    Let us concentrate on pushing for a system where every child is expected to develop their full potential, where lack of achievement is not excused and disruptive behaviour is not tolerated. Let us revert to having excellent technical colleges that are admired for their education, with well paid effective staff and which are viewed as an equal but parallel track to success. The idea of debasing technical things and creating lesser “universities” was the vision of people who thought that we can survive as a nation by pretending that all admirable activities are academic. A gross example of this is that of some BSc qualified nurses who dislike ministering physically to their patients. The stories of patients lying in urine-soaked sheets while nurses look at computer screens are not a fabrication.

    I do not know what or who damaged Tony Crosland to the extent that he hated grammar schools. Perhaps he despised them because he was educated at a fee paying school for children of rich families. May be the religious beliefs of his parents had an influence. I am only sure that he destroyed a good flawed thing rather than remedying the flaws. Our education system is becoming more mediocre with very few exceptions. At its worst it is a disgrace. It is steadily sliding down international scales of achievement. Only the lucky and sharp-elbowed survive the system and that is truly unfair and unjust.

  16. Cureseldom says:

    Tony Crosland Highgate School and Trinity College Oxford.

    Like the present Labour Party ‘its the toffs what rule‘. Crosland’s generation
    made damn sure the lower orders would never reach the top again. The grammar schools were a real threat. History repeats itself with the growth of an highly privileged educational elite under New Labour.

  17. Edmund Ball says:

    A thing that is maddening about the debate about grammar schools is the confusion of post-war 11+ grammar schools with the pre-war grammars. Pre-war , entry was not dependent upon the passing of an arbitrary IQ test( the 11+).The expansion and reorganisation of the grammar schools post-war was misbegotten and doomed to failure becaue of its reliance on the idiocy of the 11+.

    My father was from a working class, rural agricultural labouring background in the 1920’s. The insistence of his County School( state school) on sending him to the grammar school transformed his life opportunities. Why did Crosland, a posh public schoolboy (Highgate school) , show such murderous zeal against these schools?
    It is most maddening that Crossland, a public schoolboy, destroyed a system which had provided working class children with opportunities for quality education for centuries. What strange mental quirk allowed Crossland such animosity to grammar schools , whilst at the same time leaving the public schools (that fountain of class superiority) untouched? The public schools were going bust in the sixties because many of them could not compete with the superior qualities of the grammar schools. There should be a statue of him outside every public school and every public school dominated Oxbridge college. He should be canonised for preserving large numbers of public schools from closure. I speak as a Cambridge graduate who came from a grammar school (destroyed 1970) who (I’m ashamed to say) had a bit of a superiority complex to many of my (lesser educated) public school chums,having come from a high achieving grammar school. Now, in Crosland’s Brave New Education system, many state school pupils are allowed into Oxbridge on a quota system where they are patronisingly allowed in on lesser qualifications than their public school equivalents.

  18. AW1983 says:

    Social mobility largely misses the point and I would encourage everyone to read R.H. Tawney’s analogy of the tadpole in ‘Equality.’ I also don’t see the need to speak on behalf of long dead politicians when a point can be made quite adequately by and for the living; what Crosland would make of the last 37 years of history is anyone’s guess.

    The point people tend to miss can be summed up in a question. Why should the life of the average working class person be so bad that they need an escape from it and what is the moral basis for asking the successful to leave the rest of their social class behind?

    When people talk about social mobility, it is not enough to think in terms of taking a few bright working class people and giving them a well paid job. If you do that then you might make those people wealthier but they’re certainly not permitted the freedom to defend the interests of their social class when they reach the top, for fear of losing what they have gained. Sycophancy to the privileged class is the price they must pay for their new found wealth.

    Instead, social mobility should be about reducing the widening gap in incomes across the professions, one of many symptoms of neoliberalism that may deliver the highest economic growth but comes at a huge social cost. Market economics will always cause a glut of investment bankers and corporate lawyers and a dearth of medical professionals and teachers, who are just as skilled if not more so. Market economics is only capable of rewarding the making of money and a sophisticated society needs more than that.

    The gap in incomes must be reduced so that people are not forced by economics to hold their noses when they choose their careers. Giving the working class real mobility is throwing open the doors to education and having the same right as the professional classes to define their society and serve their communities.

    That’s real mobility, rather than the current system of getting an education, moving to London and having the option of a living wage only if they take a job supporting the existing neo-liberal regime.

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