Posted by: Selina Todd | March 16, 2010

THE feature on ‘bad history’

In Nov 2009 the Times Higher Education supplement carried a feature on ‘Bad History’. Historians were invited to critique the ways that politicians sometimes use history erroneously to justify their policies, or fail to learn the lessons history can teach them. I was asked to contribute a piece on education. I’ve reproduced this below. You can read more about postwar education on our other pages (see top of this page for tabs).

You can read the rest of the THE articles and comments at:


The postwar “meritocracy” provokes nostalgia among many politicians. Alan Milburn, the former Secretary of State for Health, claims he was “part of the most socially mobile generation this country has ever seen” (The Independent, 12 January 2009).

Some commentators attribute this to grammar schools: Stephen Pollard, editor of The Jewish Chronicle, said in The Times that “grammar schools did a fine job of lifting children out of poverty and into opportunity” (24 June 2008).

This is a myth. During the 1950s and 1960s, more than 60 per cent of high-status professionals’ children attended grammar schools, but less than 20 per cent of manual workers’ children. More than 70 per cent of children were educated in secondary moderns, which prepared them for manual or lower-grade clerical jobs.

Grammar schools did not overcome class inequality. Working-class children were most likely to leave school before sixth form – not because of low parental aspirations, but owing to families’ financial needs. Less than 4 per cent of manual workers’ children entered university.

Although the proportion of the workforce employed in professional work doubled, this increase was concentrated in school teaching, nursing and technical occupations that did not pay more than skilled manual jobs. The “top” professions – law, politics and the Civil Service – recruited from the ex-public-school Oxbridge graduates they still rely on.

Policymakers’ promotion of a “meritocracy” ignores the historical evidence that life chances cannot be divorced from class. Politicians would do better to tackle the underlying causes of economic inequality.

At the very least, they should address the really serious change that has occurred since the 1960s: the loss of economic security for manual and service-sector workers, which makes it hard for people to plan for the future.

Selina Todd is a lecturer in modern history and a fellow of the Centre for Research into Socio-Cultural Change, University of Manchester.


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