Brexit and the Older Generation — Don’t Blame Them, Blame the English Education System.

When I first discovered, more than two years ago, that the majority of my generation supported Brexit I was puzzled. Most of the over-60s with whom I am acquainted were, I’m sure, like me, people who saw the benefits of the UK’s membership of the European Union.

Recently I’ve been researching the history of the education system post World War II. And suddenly the penny dropped. I knew, of course, that I was fortunate in having the opportunity to stay in school until 16 and take GCE ‘O’ level examinations. I knew, too, that most of my contemporaries left school at 15 with no formal qualification. But I had assumed that the school leaving age was raised to 16 in the 1960s. I was wrong. That did not happen until 1972, coincidentally around the same time as the UK joined the EU. So there are far more people who left school at 15 than I had imagined.

I and my contemporaries were segregated at age 11, those who were able to demonstrate their academic potential via an examination, about 15% of the total, went to Grammar School, where they remained until age 16 at which point they took ‘O’ Levels. Only a small number of those continued to 18, ‘A’ Levels and university.

The majority of pupils born before 1955 went to Secondary Modern schools at age 11. There they learned the basic “3 Rs” (Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic) plus a smattering of history, geography and scripture. Woodwork and Metalwork for the boys and Home Economics for the girls completed the curriculum. Comprehensive schools did not begin to appear in large numbers until the mid-60s.

These children were taught to do, not to think.

John Marks, in a paper entitled The Betrayed Generations published almost 2 decades ago, confirms this. The image below is taken from that paper and illustrates how, as late as 1990, only around 1 in 4 pupils achieved good GCSE (or equivalent) marks. Of those born immediately post-war only a little over 10% did so.

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less than 85% of young English people leaving school before the 1960s had good GCSE marks

The significance of this, in the context of Brexit, is not that these individuals are “stupid” or “ignorant”. I agree with those who say that it is insulting to suggest that. But the kind of education that I, and the rest of that 10% or so, were privileged to receive did not just impart information, it taught us to interpret information and question the truth and provenance of that information. In exposing us to a wide spectrum of opinion, it taught us to think for ourselves.

I now understand why people, faced with a barrage of false information about the EU for over forty years in the popular newspapers, took that information at face value and formed the opinion that the EU is an impediment to the UK’s economic success when the evidence proves the contrary.

It is also the case that the segregation of the fortunate few from the rest at such a tender age helped foster an innate sense that we were privileged (true) and that the rest were inferior. It is perfectly understandable that that feeling of inferiority manifested itself as a kick in the teeth for we privileged ones.

Of course, among the privileged few there are some who seek to take advantage of the ignorance of the poorly educated, disseminating those lies in order to further their own interests and reinforce the class divisions that are the root cause of the UK’s lack of economic progress.

Written by

Frank is a retired Engineer from England now living in Ireland. He is trying to learn and share the lessons of history.

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