Tuesday, 30 September 2008

The Beatles and the grammar school

Gould, J. (2007). Can't buy me love: the Beatles, Britain and America. New York: Harmony Books: I'm not particularly interested in the Beatles but got this out because I thought, rightly as it turns out, that it might say something interesting about education in England in the 1950s.

Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney were working-class boys who had got into grammar schools, institutions that were still, despite a claimed post-war equality of opportunity (and abolition of fees), decidedly middle-class in their ethos. The type of the working-class ‘scholarship boy’ now appeared for the first time in literature and drama. Gould brings out the significance of John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger.

‘The wider cultural impact of Look Back in Anger stemmed from the
understanding that Jimmy Porter represented a new kind of social, as
well as theatrical, type--an understanding facilitated by the Angry Young
Man designation, which was applied by the press to the playwright and
his character alike. "The salient thing about Jimmy Porter," wrote the
critic Kenneth Tynan, "was that we--the under-thirty generation in
Britain--recognized him on sight. We had met him; we had pub-crawled
with him; we had shared bed-sitting-rooms with him. For the first time
the theatre was speaking to us in our own language, on our own terms."
Tynan went on to describe Jimmy as a spokesman for "the new intelligentsia created by free education and state scholarships ... young Britons who came of age under a Socialist government, yet found, when
they went out into the world, that the class-system was still mysteriously
intact." Look Back in Anger helped to turn the phenomenon of the working-class "scholarship boy" into a national talking point.’ (23-4)

Strictly, as I understand it, Porter and the two future Beatles weren’t scholarship boys at all: scholarships before the war had given some pupils free places at the then fee-charging grammar schools, but from 1944 all state education was free. So the boys were just 11+ exam successes.

More interesting is a later passage about the ethos of these schools and the social class effect of their new availability to bright working-class children.


I hadn’t been aware that an effect of the removal of fees from grammar schools was to drive the middle class away -- and I wonder how Gould knows this. There’s no relevant reference in the notes for these pages. Nor am I sure how true this picture of authoritarian brutality was across all the schools.

An interesting point, however that may be, is that the London grammar school English teachers who joined the new campaigning and self-education group, the London Association for the Teaching of English, were precisely working to prevent pupils like Lennon having that sort of experience of literature. As Simon Gibbons is showing in his research (e.g. in English in Education 42:2, 2008), a key strategy was to reform the O-Level English exams to make them more interesting and less redolent of the alienating ‘academic culture of the school’.

Another bit from Gould, about art schools, in another entry soon.

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