19 SEPTEMBER 1931, Page 9

Tendencies in Secondary Education


[A new educational year is beginning, and we propose to publish some articles, which deal broadly with current problems of Educa- tion in this country. The next will, we hope, be one by Sir Henry Hadow.—ED. Spectator.] THE casual foreign observer of English secondary education would probably be first struck by its appearance of uniformity. Our secondary schools seem to be undergoing no process of differentiation similar to that which has been applied; for instance, to the Gymnasia of Germany and Czechoslovakia. The grant-aided second- ary school differs markedly in age and range from the -" public " school, but this difference is social rather than educational. On the whole, we appear to be content with one type of secondary education for all corners.

This impression would, of course, be in some ways mistaken. The Englishman would probably reply that he has no need to differentiate between types of school because, unlike his Continental neighbours, he sees no reason why there should not be an almost infinite variety of curriculum within each school, whatever its nominal classification may be. But, true as this is, great as has been the change during the last thirty years in the direction of variety of curriculum for secondary pupils from the age of sixteen, and considerable as is the variety recognized by the .examinations for both the First and Higher School Certificates, it must be admitted that this variety does not correspond to any coherent educational ideas, but is rather the modern form of a time-honoured English assumption—namely, that it does not matter much on what subjects the schoolboy exercises his mind so long as the exercise is sufficiently strenuous. Moreover, the variety is strictly limited and there is, in particular, no such reconciliation within the walls of one school between " technical " and " academic " education as exists in the American high school. The defect of our present system, or lack of system, is that we have gone far enough in the direction of variety to have lost any single standard of secondary education, such as was supplied by the old classical curriculum, yet not far enough to have realized, as Ontario, for instance, has begun to realize in her high schools, the need for a recog- nized variety of standards. We allow a great deal of specialization according to the pupil's bent—probably too much ; but these specialities seem to surround the rising generation like trees, through which it cannot see the wood of education at all.

I seriously suggest that this lack of definite intellectual standards in our secondary education is a grave national danger. I say " intellectual " standards advisedly. Our secondary schools, whether State-aided or not, have well- marked social, moral and even cultural standards ; their civilizing influence on manners and even on modes of thought is unmistakeable. But their intellectual achieve- ment, though often high, is empirical and haphazard ; those who succeed in any course of study and those who fail cannot measure their success or failure by any recog- nized tests of excellence. The work of teachers and pupils is usually earnest and solid, but the intellectual result is sloppy ; and this criticism applies generally to the education of the 400,000 or so boys and girls in our grant-aided secondary schools, to the 31,000 or so boys in the " public " schools, and to the 32,000 or so girls in non-grant-aided public secondary schools for girls, as well as to between 50,000 and 100,000 pupils in other schools not so easily classified.

Masters and mistresses in these schools are fully alive to all this, though they might think this way of expressing it exaggerated and crude. But the remedy is not easy to devise. The truth is that the English secondary school is a rather rigid organization. It has the innate conser- vatism of all small self-governing bodies, for the English tradition of self-government in higher education has been handed down even to the municipal secondary school. At the same time it is too closely linked with the Universi- ties, too dependent on University matriculation stand- ards, to enjoy any wide freedom of evolution ; and this dependence would remain however drastically the present examination system might be revised. It is improbable, therefore, that the kind of intellectual clarification for which we are looking will come from within the existing secondary school system, and for that reason, if for no other, we ought to realize that the true line of progress in popular education does not lie along the old groove of advocating a mere multiplication of institutions complying with the requirements of the Regulations of the Board of Education for Secondary Schools or a mere increase in the number of " free places " offered by such institutions to children from the public elementary schools.

Bold as it may seem to say so, the intellectual future of our secondary education lies rather at this moment with the new types of school now being developed outside the secondary school system. Of these, the junior technical schools have been the pioneers and remain the most interesting ; next to them the London Central schools, especially on their commercial side ; and now, following on these older experiments, the multitude of senior and central schools which have been growing up in all parts of the country during the last five or six years. The growth of these middle or intermediate schools, as they would be called in other countries, has led, at the outset, to a demand, especially from the teaching pro- fession, that all such schools should be assimilated in status and material conditions (for instance, in buildings, staffing, size of classes and salary scales) to secondary schools and, though the advocates of this policy would disclaim a desire to copy slavishly in these schools the established secondary curricula and are positively opposed to applying to them the established secondary examinations, yet many would like to see them organized as " multiple bias " schools—which might well mean in practice that their courses of study would cover much the same ground as those of the secondary school, with perhaps a slightly greater admixture of " technical " instruction. Admitting all that is valuable and true in such views, it seems necessary nevertheless to insist that, at this stage, what we should require from these schools is rather a contrast, or coherent alternatives, to the secondary school than an approximate duplication of it. On the whole, the junior technical school which converts itself, as one or two have done experimentally, into a " secondary school with technical bias " does not improve itself, and a London Central school which converted itself into a secondary school with a modern language bias would probably neither add to the practical utility of its language teaching nor raise the intellectual standards of its pupils.

The two great questions which a national system of secondary education has to answer at the present day are : first, what place should it give to the study of languages, ancient or modem ; and secondly, what place should it give to the study of applied science ? During the last thirty years or so, we in this country have allowed science to displace languages as a medium of higher education to a greater extent than any other European country, not excepting Soviet Russia, yet at the secondary school (though not, of course, in the technological departments of our Universities) our teaching of science has been, it may be urged, more academic and less practical than even the old teaching of ancient languages. The practical use of language for the nice expression of thought is inherent in any language teaching ; but the practical use of science in harnessing nature to man's uses leads into those regions of technical education which our secondary schools have hitherto eschewed. Our Universities and our secondary schools can do much to supply an answer to the first question. Probably, the most marked feature of our secondary schools during the next few years will be a great development of modern language teaching and some decline in the emphasis which has recently been placed on science. But the answer to the second question must be mainly supplied by junior technical and other types of post-elementary schools, closely linked with the technical colleges and devoted chiefly to the working out of applied science as a method of higher education.

The difficulty in writing about education is that any fool can be suggestive on such a subject and only a fool will be didactic. But this short note . may serve as a reminder that, in education as in every other department of public policy, a nation will suffer most, not from its obvious weaknesses, but from the defects of its qualities. Our secondary education had been one of our strongest and most envied assets, but if we rest content with its defects it may become one of our heaviest liabilities.