England’s private schools, traditionally called public schools, have been famous for hundreds of years. The Duke of Wellington is reputed to have said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Eton, and Winston Churchill’s school, Harrow, and many others, have established, and maintain to this day, a standard of education that attracts the children of rulers, aristocrats and oligarchs from all over the world. Yet two generations ago England possessed even better schools, some of which sent more students to Oxford and Cambridge Universities than even Eton or Harrow. And these schools were open to bright children from the humblest homes.
In the years following the end of the Second World War, all children in the United Kingdom took an examination at the age of ten years to determine the nature of their secondary education from the age of eleven. Called ‘The Eleven Plus,’ all those who passed were provided with free education at a grammar school. Those who failed were educated at a secondary modern school, with the option of a transfer to a technical or commercial school at the age of thirteen. In this system, each child was assessed and assigned to the level of education to which they were best suited.
With the rigour of the Eleven Plus examination, it might have been supposed that all the students of the grammar schools were potential university material but this was no so. At the end of the first year, roughly half of the students entered the ‘A’ stream heading towards Academe, and the other half were expected to leave after the ‘O’ level examinations at the age of sixteen, or pursue other routes to a commercial or professional career. About five percent of all children went on to university and most of these came from grammar schools, with Manchester Grammar School regularly topping the league table ahead of all the leading public schools.
There is no doubt that the grammar schools were the best schools England ever had, and the system in which they operated was the fairest yet devised. Clever children from poor homes were admitted and the door was barred to children of rich parents if they couldn’t make the grade. Entry was purely on merit. It is often said that in England the prime minister is always from Eton or another top public school, but for a few years prime ministers like Edward Heath took the elevator of the grammar school to high public office. This was possible for a few fleeting years, but by the mid-1960s the grammar schools were swept away by the government of Harold Wilson, himself a former grammar school pupil, leaving once again the pursuit of excellence to the private sector.