Education 50 years on - better or worse?
14 Jul 2008 BBC News Online
Was there ever a golden age?
Like oil price rises, changes in education come so fast and furious these days that it is hard to get a true perspective on the bigger picture.
This week, though, marked a milestone for an invaluable study that does offer a long-term view of what has been happening in school and college education in Britain over the last 50 years.
For the past half century, this vast study has been following the lives of 17,000 people born in one week in 1958.
The National Child Development Study, from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, is the academic equivalent of that fascinating TV series 'Seven Up'.
To mark its significant birthday it has just published a report called 'Now We Are 50'.
It provides an unparalleled analysis of the long-term effects of early childhood, family circumstances, and education on the life chances of a whole generation.
Through comparisons with other groups, born in 1946 and 1970 respectively, it also offers a fascinating picture of social change in the past half century.
Although those born in 1958 are still relatively young, the world has changed enormously since their birth.
For example, 50 years ago only one household in 10 had a fridge and only one in three had a car.
At their 11th birthday, over half of the children born in 1958 were living in rented accommodation. 42% were in council houses.
The 1958 cohort spent their school lives without computers. Instead they had slide rules and protractors.
These 50-year-olds were born just as the first experiments with comprehensive schooling were starting. Yet by the time they transferred to secondary school, the 11-plus was still widespread and only a small minority of pupils were in comprehensive schools.
Indeed in 1965, a year after a Labour government had promised to abolish selection, fewer than 5% of schools were comprehensives.
They turned 14 just as the school-leaving age was raised to 16.
And by the time they were old enough to go to university they had the benefit of the huge expansion in higher education with the 'new' universities of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Unlike most of their children, or for that matter their parents, this generation received free university tuition and grants towards their livings costs.
However, before we get too dewy-eyed about any golden age of grammar schools and free university education, let's look at some facts from the study.
For a start, this generation was taught in very large classes. In 1965, when they were seven, their average class size was 37. Four out of five of them were taught in classes above 30.
Only 12% of them moved on from primary schools, via the 11-plus, to a grammar school.
Most of the rest attended schools that lacked pupils in the top end of the ability range.
A similarly small proportion went on to university. By the age of 33, just 14% of men and 11% of women in this cohort had achieved a degree.
These were the winners from the education system they grew up in. They would earn on average £332,000 more over their lifetime than their peers who left school with no qualifications.
The study certainly underlines the monetary value of getting qualifications: those with O-levels were £116,000 better off, while those who stayed on to take A-levels were £123,000 to the good compared to those without qualifications.
But what of the rest? Well, nearly two-thirds of those born in 1958 left school as soon as they could at age 16.
By the time they were 33, around 15% still had no educational qualifications and a further 10% were only qualified to a level below O-Levels.
A further one-third had O-Levels but no qualifications higher than that.
In other words, the school system did not do particularly well by the great majority of those born in 1958, leaving them with few qualifications and putting them at a considerable disadvantage in earning power.
Today, by contrast, the great majority of young people stay on in education to 18. Some 40% go on to university.
Of course, there are those who argue that we send too many young people to university and we should be offering more of them better work-based preparation. They often look back to another supposed golden period: the age of apprenticeships.
There was much to be said for the old-style apprenticeship: on-the-job learning, alongside a mentor, preparing young people for not only the skills but also the discipline needed for employment.
Yet, most of the 85% or so who did not go to university simply went into a job. Only 15% of the 1958 cohort entered an apprenticeship.
Moreover, there was a huge gender gap: males took nearly all the apprenticeships.
For those who did start an apprenticeship it was a long haul: five to seven years. One-third failed to complete.
The 1958 generation also had poor basic skills. When they were aged 37, a sample was tested for basic numeracy and literacy: almost half had 'very poor' numeracy skills and 6% had difficulty with reading.
Those with poor numeracy and literacy were, not surprisingly, much more likely to be unemployed.
So, as we contemplate the almost daily bad news about class sizes, school drop-outs, and the poor basic skills of school-leavers, we should perhaps pause to remember that - while there is certainly still plenty of room for improvement - the answer does not seem to lie in a nostalgic return to a past system which served the few very well and the majority poorly.