ENGLISH EDUCATION SYSTEMS
AS THEY EXISTED FROM 1950 – 1965
During this period, as now, over ninety percent of children were educated in schools funded by the state. Children began school at age five, as they still do. Their primary education lasted until the age of eleven, and was split into two stages, infants and juniors. In most cases, these two stages were catered for at the same primary school, such as the one that I attended.
At age eleven, all children sat the 11+ examination to determine which type of secondary school they would go to. Those who passed the exam, around twenty per cent of the population, went to grammar schools, which provided an academic education up to age eighteen. The rest went to secondary modern schools, where the education provided was far more limited, often with a strongly vocational slant. Although there were exceptions, expectations at most secondary modern schools were low. Children who went to them were not expected to go on to hold responsible, challenging jobs. Most children left secondary modern schools at age fifteen with no qualifications.
Running in parallel with the state schools were the private (independent) day schools. First, there were the private primary schools who specialised in getting children to pass the 11+ exam. They were sometimes known as crammers. Parents with the money to pay the fees would often send their children to such schools, especially if they thought their offspring might not succeed otherwise. A handful of my classmates at grammar school had attended one of these schools.
There were also the private secondary schools for the children from middle class families who had failed the 11+ exam. These schools thrived during this period, which was not surprising, given that the education provided by most secondary modern schools was so uninspiring.
Standing completely apart from the state system were the independent boarding schools, largely attended by children from wealthy families. The senior schools took children from the age of thirteen and provided a largely academic education up age eighteen. They were almost all single sex.
The most prestigious of the senior schools were a group of boys' schools known as Public Schools. The name is misleading. They were, and are, highly elitist, and the fees they charged were stratospheric. They belonged to an organisation called The Headmasters' Conference, and many of have been in existence for hundreds of years. Many people regard them as bastions of privilege. Admission to the Public Schools was by means of the Common Entrance Examination.
At the top of the pile was Eton College, which was founded in 1440. Although there are some generous scholarships, the current fees there are approximately £37,000 per year, and there are extras on top of that. Eton has educated more government ministers than any other school. Recent former pupils include former prime minister David Cameron, former chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) George Osborne and current foreign secretary Boris Johnson, as well as Prince William and Prince Harry.
Feeding into the senior schools were the preparatory (prep) schools, which took children from the age of eight. Once again, these were almost all single-sex. Most were quite small with around 100–150 pupils. In their final year at prep school, boys would sit the Common Entrance Examination in order to gain a place at one of the Public Schools.
Some of the boys' prep schools were attached to one of our great medieval cathedrals, and provided the cathedral with its boy choristers, as described in the story. In a few cases, as at Westminster Abbey, these were the only boys that the school educated. The school there was tiny, with only thirty boys, six in each year. Some other cathedral prep schools were larger institutions of which the choir school was a part.
In the large majority of cases, prep school was the children's first experience of being away from home, with all the attendant problems of homesickness etc. Prior to starting at prep school, most would have attended a private primary school or one of a network of pre-preparatory day schools.