The Plastic Hippo

September 11, 2016

Secondary but not modern

Via Peguin Books

Via Peguin Books

Imagine inventing a new word to describe something undesirable only to find that the word quickly becomes part of common language but with its original usage completely reversed. Then consider the sorry experience of minor politician and sociologist Michael Young.

Credited with drafting large chunks of Labour`s 1945 manifesto, Young played a major part in securing a landslide victory for Clement Attlee and the almost unthinkable defeat of Sir Winston Churchill at the conclusion of the Second World War. The 1944 Butler Education Act established free and universal education and set the school leaving age at 15. It also introduced the tripartite system of education featuring grammar schools, secondary technical schools and secondary modern schools. In theory, comprehensive schools would combine features of all three streams. Allocation of school places was determined by academic examination when a child reached the age of 11. The results of a maths test, a general essay and a third test on general reasoning would define the child as a member of the elite, someone who could be trusted with expensive machinery or a basic manual labourer expected to be grateful for the chance at any education at all.

Given that the Butler Act was passed into law when victory was still far from certain and with one eye on rebuilding a peacetime society, the tripartite system probably seemed attractive to the established elite but the families of the 80 per cent judged to be failures at age 11 were of a different opinion and a Labour government recognised the divisive nature, inherent unfairness and counter-productive consequences of academic selection.

In 1958 Michael Young published a blistering critique of the tripartite system in an essay entitled The Rise of the Meritocracy. Set in a dystopian future, Young satirises selection and ridicules governmental obsession with tests, qualifications and evidence of intelligence. He describes a “restless elite” as a “creative minority” with a right to power based on intellectual superiority. He invents the word “meritocracy” as a derogatory term to describe an arrogant and complacent ruling class who expect to have their failures and their less than savoury indiscretions ignored or at least tolerated. For the meritocracy to prosper, the selection of one is a rejection of many.

Imagine poor old Michael Young`s delight when in the late 50s Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell abandoned the tripartite and selection system in favour of comprehensive education. A grammar school education for all was the cry. Young probably punched the air when he heard what Labour`s education secretary Anthony Crosland wanted to do to every grammar school in the country. Imagine, though, Young`s disappointment when Harold Wilson over-ruled Crosland and allowed some grammar schools and selection to continue from the mid 60s up to the present day. That disappointment however, must be of nothing when compared to the adoption into the English language of the word he invented.

Rather than a derisory insult, being described as a member of the meritocracy is now considered to be something of a compliment and our latest Prime Minister regards the establishing of a meritocracy as an aspiration for the individual and necessary for the nation. Even though they never went away, grammar schools are back and children will once again be judged by an even less reliable selection process that JK Rowling`s sorting hat. It is difficult to comprehend why a government should wish to enforce segregation, create inequality and dismiss the vast majority of the school-aged population as not worth bothering with. What is even more difficult to grasp is the rather bizarre claim that yet more upheaval in the education sector is needed to promote equality and social mobility.

We need not look beyond the dogma of this and previous governments to discover a political elite dedicated to the preservation and prosperity of the creative minority. Labour ministers talk grandly of equal opportunities yet pay fees to the private schools their own little darlings attend. Conservatives are more honest and believe that only the wealthy can afford to be clever. Now into a third Conservative government, we have another almighty distraction involving grammar schools. After six years in power, it seems that education is in a mess and something needs to be done. Well the government cancelled Building Schools for the Future, shut down Surestart centres, stopped EMA, increased tuition fees, imposed the Academies programme and allowed any old crook to open a Free School. Having run out of ways to deny a child an adequate education, we are back with grammar schools.

Poor old Michael Young, his invented word has been re-defined and appropriated by his opponents. In life and as a socialist he was ridiculed for accepted a peerage and for becoming the Right Honourable Lord Young of Dartington. Ever the pragmatic, he dismissed this hypocrisy by pointing out that he had no money and that the peerage came with free rail travel between his home and London. This allowed him to continue his work with the Consumers` Association, Which? Magazine and the Open University. He died in 2002 at the grand old age of 86 after three marriages that produced various children.

michael-young-via-highgate-cemeteryOne of his sons attended one of the best comprehensive schools in the country – Creighton School now called Fortismere School. Sadly, the boy only managed a solitary Grade C GCSE at the first attempt but persevered and managed a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Brasenose. Having graduated, the boy became a journalist for the Spectator, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. In 2012 he penned an article suggesting that disabled children should not be included into mainstream education and went on to be the founder of one of the first Free Schools to attract large amounts of government funding. Sadly, his Free School has returned some rather disappointing results and some interesting financial data.

Michael Young obviously had some disappointments in his long and eventful life. One can never predict how children will turn out and we will never know if Michael was even a little bit disappointed with his son Toby.


  1. Anyone doubting the validity of the “one size fits all” approach need only note the effect of adopting the euro on southern european countries.

    Comment by Rob — September 11, 2016 @ 1:25 pm | Reply

    • Whatever you are smoking, change it.

      Comment by The Realist — September 12, 2016 @ 10:33 am | Reply

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