Social Class and Educational Opportunity

by J. E. Floud, A. H. Halsey & F. M. Martin - 1958

A discussion of Floud, Halsey, and Martinís study that is an offshoot of a wider inquiry into the problems of social class conducted at the London School of Economics, followed by a review of The Teaching of Mathematics (Incorporated Association of Assistant Masters in Secondary Schools).

In 1896 the headmaster of the grammar school in Middlesbrough, Yorkshire had the first occasion to report on the social changes occurring in his school. Eight years earlier, fifteen annual scholarships had been endowed to finance free secondary education of the "cleverer boys" from elementary schools. As a result, "quite a new class of boys" was introduced into the school and "caused the exodus of good many others." The school "suffering severely in consequence by the withdrawal of boys who were sent to boarding schools." Yet "the tone of the school [had] not suffered in the least." It was discovered that the newcomers were "drawn from respectable families in which the moral tone would be high." From the perspective of a decade the headmaster felt it justifiable in good conscience to ask the better class parents to "reconcile themselves to what was happening and to recognize the advantage of educating the working-classes." One hundred and sixty students "whose mental development in many cases is marvellous" have enriched the population of his school as a result of the innovation.

One thing only continued to dampen his enthusiasm:

I cannot forbear expressing my deep regret [he wrote] that no suitable careers appear open to these youths. Up to, say, 17, they receive an education well fitted to modern requirements… [but] we have no means of placing them in business or sending them forward to a university—and in far too many instances, after waiting—and deteriorating—for months, they are glad to fall in with situations far below their merits. I look upon this as so much national loss and waste of ability, and although it is not my province to indicate any means of cure, yet I am convinced that something will have to be done to utilize for our country's benefit—if only to hold our own in competition with the foreigner—those abundant stores of mental power which at present are so neglected.

More than sixty years have passed since these words were written. "Yet, as the book under review—and from which these words are quoted (pp. 22-24)—indicates, the problems of English education remain essentially the same. On one side, to be sure, excellent and continuous efforts have been made to discover and promote talent irrespective of social class. On the other side, however, the English seem unwilling or unable to follow through this widening of opportunity by an effective relaxation of old social and cultural rigidities. As a result, all types of talent continue to be utilized only in a one-sided manner. "The continual protests that the secondary schools were producing a nation of clerks were made in vain" (p. xv).

The Floud, Halsey, and Martin study is an offshoot of a wider inquiry into the problems of social class conducted at the London School of Economics.1 It sets itself the task of testing the effectiveness of the latest moves toward equality of educational opportunity in England symbolized by the Butler act of 1944, and by the intellectual selection of English children at the age of eleven for grammar, technical and modern schools. In the pursuit of this aim the authors have conducted research in two communities: (1) a division of Hertfordshire in the South of England; (2) the borough of Middlesbrough in the North. These educational "catchment areas" were roughly matched in population but differed in their class composition, the first being of a more professional, the second of a more purely working-class character.

The aim of the authors was to secure samples large enough to allow for significant results and different enough to provide a picture of educational selection under favorable and unfavorable conditions. It is in this setting that a thorough examination of the present school population in respect to its social class background, and measured intelligence, was made. The findings were then compared with prewar selection to secondary schools and the postwar changes were analyzed in terms of home conditions. The excellent summaries of conclusions provided by the authors throughout their text make it possible to illustrate the outcome largely in their own words.

The results substantiate fully the qualitative notions about the effect of the selective examination given to children eleven plus years of age. In terms of measured intelligence the schools seem to have succeeded in providing for almost all outstanding talent. "In London in 1933-34, . . . it was found that less than one quarter of the children with an IQ of 130 or more, whose fathers were unskilled workers, and only about one third of those whose parents were skilled workers went to secondary schools" (p. 34). By contrast (in this case in terms of an IQ of about 114 or over) “in 1952 virtually the full quota of boys with the necessary minimum intellectual qualification was admitted from every social class to grammar schools" (p. 51). If equality of educational opportunity means only the discovery at the threshold of secondary schools of people with above average general intelligence, then English postwar reforms have already come within sight of reasonable achievement of this objective. This finding seems to be particularly relevant to areas in which the population was more saturated by professional families and hence fraught with more competition and potentialities for abuse. In Hertfordshire the postwar grammar school entry represents a real equalization of advantage as compared with the prewar period. In Middlesbrough, where the composition of the population was more consistently working class, the new process of intellectual selection had proved to be a mere continuation of the prewar system of granting free places in grammar schools. In working class communities the provision of opportunities to outstanding intellectual talent from the working class began long before the 1944 legislation.

But, as the authors are quick to point out, the fall upward promotion of outstanding intelligence does not settle the pressing questions of the more equalitarian role of education. "The problem of inequality of educational opportunity is not thereby disposed of" (p. 143). When checked for class background of entrants equitable promotion of measured intelligence merely points to the fact that the problems of cultural equality are not solved by identification of academic acumen. Such reform has an overall effect of benefiting more the middle classes by giving to their children free, the education for which they previously had to pay. It means relatively less to the working class, the historical neglect of which originated the whole movement. It would seem that selection for talent has, indeed, revolutionized the composition of the grammar school population by introducing, especially in predominantly middle class areas, a substantial percentage of children from working-class homes. But in terms of the whole working class population:

. . . the likelihood that a working class boy will reach a grammar school is not notably greater today despite all the changes, than it was before 1945. Rather less than 10 percent of working class boys reaching the age of u in the years 1931-41 entered selective secondary schools. In 1953 in South West Hertfordshire the proportion was 15.5 percent; and in Middlesbrough, 12 percent ... In general the sons of manual workers had a chance below the average, and the sons of nonmanual workers a chance above the average, of being selected for grammar schools. The sons of clerks had four or more times as good a chance as the sons of unskilled manual workers, and two to three times the chance of sons of skilled workers. The difference in chances at the extremes of the occupational scale was still greater, [pp. 33, 42.]

Furthermore, the actual selection for upper class status has only been shifted by the eleven plus selection from the gate of the secondary school to the gate of the university. There is evidence that working class youth progressively lose much of the advantage of admission into grammar schools by early leaving and restricted entry into the universities.

Thus the different "life chances" of boys at grammar school entrance vary according to their class background even though they "can be explained almost entirely in terms of the unequal distribution of measured intelligence" (p. 58). If one is critical of a class system based on hereditary socioeconomic and educational advantage, a mere switch to early selection on the basis of intelligence represents a poor educational reform. Intelligence ratings vary more widely within each social class than between classes. But since "they are known to be largely an acquired characteristic" (p. 65) they tend even under most scrupulously objective methods of selection to reward those already better socially and economically endowed. The authors devote a special section to these reinforcing social influences. They show the adverse relationship between large family size and educational opportunity. They point out that "purely material conditions at home still differentiated the successful from the unsuccessful children even at the same social level." They correlate low class status with less parental ambition and less encouragement of the education of their children; and they observe the persisting "traditional association between poor homes and poor schools" (p. 145). All these social influences either cause or must be added to the adverse intelligence performance. From the standpoint of the individual welfare of all even the strictest selection by ability is no solution whatsoever.

Even from the standpoint of the welfare of the community, selection by ability is of limited usefulness. If it occurs in a hierarchical society it merely furnishes a greater number of the "best" academically trained people for professional and political posts of great responsibility. But the solution of this problem is accompanied by a host of new problems. In England it has brought into being "the frustration of an earnest and ambitious body of parents" (p. 27). On one hand their search for private grammar school places has greatly strengthened the position of this socially most divisive sector of English society. On the other hand their disdain for the "failures" in the modern schools has greatly handicapped the development of the most vital and hopeful form of mass education. On one side, as a result of the system, young children are haunted by the specter of the forthcoming examinations and turned into bitter anti-intellectuals by a school selection that brands them more painfully than any erstwhile socioeconomic injustice. On the other side, those who succeed often find themselves forced by the dictates of upper class culture to scrap their family allegiances, thus creating new areas of tension. All this is further aggravated by the fact that the number of grammar school places available varies from county to county not in relation to ability but in relation to economic and historical accident, and by the fact that the varying birthrate from year to year produces different quotas of qualified children, thus making annual opportunities unequal. Most significant of all perhaps, the single ladder of success continues to place exclusive social value upon intellectual preparation for white collar occupations, seriously jeopardizing the nation's effort to raise the status of technological education and failing to galvanize the masses, more and more accustomed to the security of the welfare state, into actively constructive social and economic participation.

These are the many pitfalls of a system which boasts near perfection in selection by ability. One ought to consider whether their enormity does not render the very effort of its creation a sheer waste. In this sense the Floud, Halsey and Martin book may serve as a timely warning to those Americans who press for the reversal of the old established educational comprehensive traditions. Between the neglect or even discouragement of outstanding academic talent with which the schools are now charged and the perfectly operating but equally harmful system of clear-cut intellectual selection there must be several compromise solutions vastly superior to the two polarities. If only we knew how to combine the least "typing" of children and the greatest flexibility and variety of offerings with the individual inculcation of the vision of excellence, we might be spared the attacks of those who look in vain for educational salvation in shoddy shortcuts and false panaceas.


Teachers College, Columbia



New York, Cambridge University Press, 1957. ix + 231 pp. $3.00.

Even before the furor resulting from the recent Russian advances in science, professional groups in the United States at the graduate, undergraduate, and secondary levels had appointed committees to study programs in science and mathematics. There are four of these whose work with respect to mathematics is particularly important: (1) Committee on the Undergraduate Mathematics Program (commonly referred to as GUMP) of the Mathematical Association of America; (2) Commission on Mathematics of the College Entrance Examination Board, referred to as the Commission; (3) University of Illinois Committee on Secondary Mathematics, commonly referred to as the UICSM Mathematics Project; and (4) the Curriculum Committee of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. From the available reports of these committees, a reader obtains uniformly an air of dissatisfaction with present programs in mathematics, an idea that the gap between graduate level mathematics and secondary and undergraduate mathematics needs to be narrowed, and an expression of a desire to do a better job of teaching mathematics so that people in the social sciences and the life sciences will find it usable.

So it was with great anticipation that the reviewer read the report by the assistant masters of mathematics in England's secondary schools, whose programs are comparable to our college preparatory programs. Judging by this report, a reader can only conclude the English are unruffled. The report shows more concern with examinations of various sorts than with modern mathematics or modern science. And yet, it is comforting to read a serious, honest discussion of classroom problems in teaching mathematics without having to contend with the usual anxieties resulting from sputniks and shortages of engineers and scientists.

After noting that "the emphasis is increasingly on the student rather than on the subject," Chapter 1 continues with general remarks concerning mathematics, its aims, and the influence of psychological research on classroom methods. That the "historic roots of mathematics lie deep in problems arising in the physical world" is a fact that all too many teachers lose sight of when they approach a topic in mathematics. It is heartening to hear an echo of what one has himself tried to teach, "precision of reasoning need not be opposed to the use of imagination and intuition." Many will read with a wry grin of understanding: "The notable changes in the education of young children which have taken place in the past forty years as a result of how children learn have, as yet, had comparatively little effect on education at the secondary level." And as the reviewer read, "What is essential is that this drill be related to some purpose which is significant to the pupil," he could not help but feel he had been through this before! The chapter concludes with some remarks on classroom practice. If only each mathematics teacher would remember that "a lesson should begin with a challenge; it should then devise a method or a tool, and finally exhibit the use of this tool in other fields," overnight there would be a revolutionary change in the learning of mathematics by students.

Chapter 2 is a resume of what is taught in elementary school arithmetic in England. American readers will find the chapter interesting primarily from the point of view of grade placement of topics and difference in algorisms used. As we do in this country, an appeal is made to research to justify the choice of one algorism over another. Is it not strange that research on the same topic in two different countries should result in two different conclusions?

The syllabuses presented in Chapter 3 for the first five years of a secondary school contain a grade-by-grade description of courses that is quite different from our own. Essentially, the difference results from carrying on arithmetic, algebra, and geometry, for example, each year in parallel sequences. At the end of five years, both groups of students would be at about the same level in terms of mathematical knowledge. In view of our shortage of capable mathematics teachers and Soviet teacher education as described in Education in the USSR of the U. S. Office of Education, the following comment indicates that England, too, has come to the same conclusion as others: "The period from 1950 onwards is likely to see the disappearance from secondary education of the most highly qualified mathematicians graduating from our universities, simply because the advance of mathematical knowledge and technique has created alternative occupations for them. Indeed, the advance of knowledge, with the corresponding advance in the standard of university work for those specializing in mathematics, brings with it the paradox that those now qualifying with the highest qualifications in mathematics may thereby be gravely handicapped for teaching mathematics to children—and especially to those children who, lacking mathematical genius, are most in need of sympathetic teaching." This comment on page 56 in Chapter 4 highlights an elaboration of the characteristics of a mathematics teacher and his work with children in a mathematics classroom. Clearly, the masters have come to recognize that there is a professional sort of training in subject matter for a mathematics teacher that is important for him if he is to work effectively in a classroom.

American readers will note with much interest—and enthusiasm if they are mathematics teachers—that the report recommends dividing a school into mathematical "sets." The reasons given are the same as those advanced in this country, but the language used is so sober, so common sense in tone that somehow they seem more cogent. In view of our respect for the results of English education, the fact that only 1 to 1½ hours of homework in mathematics per week is the typical practice will surprise many. A school device that the reviewer long has recommended is also mentioned. That is, that a school ought to have a "definite homework timetable throughout the main school [in order that one homework assignment does not have] to compete with a large number of other assignments."

Chapter 5 achieves interest only in that a reader appreciates that people close to classroom situations are doing the writing. The methods for teaching certain specific topics of the syllabuses are not very different from good classroom practices that exist in this country. Those mathematics teachers who continually complain about the mathematical shortcomings of their students might read with some chagrin the firm conviction of the English masters that "it is remarkable how little essential knowledge is required as a foundation for mathematical education and how easily deficiencies in earlier work may be remedied by skillful teaching."

Of the remaining chapters, which consider the problem of sixth form work in mathematics, there is only one that is of more than passing interest. It is Chapter 8, "The Mathematics Classroom." So many of the discussions of a mathematics classroom that appear in our professional publications are of the out-of-this-world variety. So much so that no community is willing to spend the funds necessary for such a room in considering the construction of a new school building. Here, however, are details for arrangement of the room's equipment, suggestions of ways to use the room, and arguments for their justification that are fresh. Study of this chapter might influence school architects and school authorities to consider more seriously a center for mathematics activity in a school.

The secondary-school assistant masters do not recommend a "crash program" of mathematics instruction. No, they urge more attention ought to be given to the student and more attention paid to motivating him in his study of mathematics. Is that not good? They suggest ways for a mathematics master to improve his classroom practices, through examples and analysis of them. Frankly confessing that there is little evidence to support their view, still they deprecate the extreme formality of some classroom instruction. Communicated to a reader is their deep faith in the possibility of continually improving the secondary school program in mathematics and its teaching.


Teachers College, Columbia

1 Other writings related to this inquiry include Social Mobility in Britain, edited by D. Glass (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1955); Parity and Prestige in English Secondary Education, by O. Banks (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1955); The School Teachers, by Asher Tropp (London, Heinemann, 1956). The argument of the book under review, which is a continuing inquiry, is carried one step further in "Intelligence Tests and Selection for Secondary Schools," by J. E. Floud and A. H. Halsey, in The British Journal of Sociology, March 1957.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 59 Number 8, 1958, p. 485-485 ID Number: 4471, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 3:48:51 PM

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