The first actual use of the term ‘grammar school’ in English appears to be in 1387 as a translation from Latin. (Watson 1968, Musgrave 2007) To refer to grammar schools then as secondary schools would have been wholly inaccurate. The grammar school course was never a ‘second stage’. It was a highly specialized form of classical education, a ritual, a kind of initiation ordeal necessary for the acquirement or indication of superior social status. Until about 100 years ago, no one ever thought or spoke of it as secondary education. If for no other reason because the term was not known in England. The words ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ are said to have been first applied to education in France in 1792. In the ‘Rapport et projet de decret sur l’organisation generale de l’instruction publique’. In this document which he submitted to the Legislative Assembly in April of that year, Antoine Nicolas de Condorcet proposed the setting up of Ecoles Primaires in villages and Ecoles Secondaires in Departments. Ten years later the terms were used in the French Education Act.
Half a century however was to elapse before the terms primary and secondary became current in England and much longer before they acquired any precise meaning. The term secondary education first appeared in a British Act of Parliament in the Board of Education Act of 1899. The term however was never statutorily defined until the British Education act of 1944. Notably this act introduced the infamous tripartite system, the vehicle for legitimating social stratification and elitism in the education system.
The definition of Secondary Education in this act could hardly be called illuminating: full time education suitable for the requirements of senior pupils, other than such full time education as may be provided for senior pupils in pursuance of a scheme made under the provisions of this act relating to further education (sec 8(ii)).
It is instructive to note that our oldest existing secondary schools, St. Mary’s College and St. Joseph’s Convent were opened in 1890 and 1898 respectively. Considering the historicity of the preceeding account, these schools would have had a grammar school philosophy and would not have been referred to as secondary schools. This conclusion can be further reinforced by records of Tapon’s decision to follow the model of British Schools. King points out that:
Whereas the Catholic clergy in St. Lucia would long remain French, Tapon decided to follow the model of British public schools. He went to England for a year to improve his English and to learn how English schools were run. (King, 1996)
Patrick Leigh Fermor, in ‘The Traveler’s Tree’ also recalls a completely English atmosphere at St. Mary’s College in the early 1900s.
Amidst the enthusiasm associated with universal secondary education and partial zoning, can history repeat itself? It certainly can and will if policy makers, educators and civil society alike devalue the art of self-reflection. This is when we react to our old fears and insecurities about school choices, students’ intelligence and the prestige associated with subjects and careers reflexively, we get the same results that our predecessors did. We find ourselves locked in an endless repetitive cycle of school and subject stereotyping. As a consequence we set parameters, which disconfirm and devalue the aptitudes of some learners and by extension the status of some schools. In so
doing we deceive the public and maybe ourselves into believing that we are acting out a new drama on a new stage with a new script, rather than acknowledging that we are performing a hopeless revival of an antiquated play.
Indeed studies in education which cover a substantial period of time, find themselves the victims of semantics and changing fashion in vocabulary. As politics shift
the terms deployed shift and necessity and political expediency obliges politicians to neologise or even commit verbicide. For example in 1940 the term “multilateral schools” was used in England later these same schools were referred to as comprehensive schools. In St. Lucia we have moved from top performing schools to oversubscribed schools and choice schools. The users of these terms do not always make clear what they imply by them therefore precise definition is seldom possible. The reader or listener therefore needs to be aware of this ambiguity, which such terms introduce into a policy statement. To avoid the dreary cycle to which history sentences the impassive, let us consider an historical
event. This event is central to genesis of the method of selection of eleven plus learners in schools.
The place, England, the Tripartite system is introduced after the passing of the 1944 Education Act. This act legitimized the classification of learners and made the issue of who gets what, why and how a policy priority. The Tripartite system, a creature of the act allowed for the stratification of learners into three sorts of minds, the academic, the technical and the rest. As a result the act facilitated universal education in three different types of schools, Grammar, Secondary modern and Technical. It is noteworthy to recognize that Lawmakers intended that these schools would cater for three different academic levels which they associated with children’s aptitudes and socio-cultural capital. It is instructive to note that the Grammar schools classical curriculum in keeping with the scholastic temper of the times was at the top of this academic hierarchy. Next in line were secondary modern schools with Technical schools at the bottom. Politicians who were proponents of this hierarchy maintained that schools for the poor should be “as little as possible scholastic; and be kept down to the lowest level of the workshop”. (Sturt, 2013)
It should be made clear immediately that the institutionalized stratification of learners in England in 1944 subtly influenced our thinking. It is mirrored as a continuity of history in 2014 in the suggestion to place our ‘best brains in the same location’. Regardless of its location in history, this suggestion will always be an ideological position. Its ideological flavor has been and still is disguised in a variant of the eugenics view even if the present proponents are unaware. It is a statement that the stereotyping and labeling of schools, subjects and students is made on relevant grounds using reasonable or even scientific criteria. The English Tripartite system of 1944 evidently bears an ancestral likeness to the present day thinking. The perception that schools are enarmoured and marketed by students with academic aptitudes (the ‘cleverest’ students) still exists. Revealingly the Tripartite system later appeared to have allowed the social and cultural capital distinction among learners to be breached. It did so only by permitting some of the ‘cleverest’ working class learners to attend grammar schools with the assistance of a grant from government. This form of tokenism gave some form of legitimacy to working class learners both in England and St. Lucia. It
also served to support the thinly disguised prejudices and the ulterior social and cognitive stratification motives that lay behind the propagation of the Tripartite system.