John White, emeritus professor of philosophy of education at the Institute of Education, writes: 

It is so much harder to understand the school system now than it was when I was growing up after the war. Things were so clear-cut then. If, like me, you adored the logical and linguistic questions set in intelligence tests, you did well at the 11 plus and went to grammar school and, with luck, to university. If they weren’t for you, you went to a secondary modern, en route to nothing.

The sharp division was a legacy from the situation after 1904 when state grammar schools were introduced for the few children not in elementaries. The post-war 11 plus divide was based in the scientific wisdom of the day – that most children had intelligence ceilings too low for them to cope with academic learning. 

We now know that learning is not limited in this way. We also know that the main beneficiaries of selective education were still the more affluent families, even though the ladder for other clever children was now broader.

The key to success in the wider world was still good exam performance at the end of secondary school – as it had been since the 1850s, when universities began setting school exam papers. That decade was a milestone in the rising middle classes’ love affair with examinations. They were their way into the higher education and professional careers that until that time had been the monopoly of the landed establishment. The examination replaced patronage as the passport to success for what were then called ‘middle class schools’. 

It was still the passport for grammar and public schools in the 1950s. It still is for elite schools today. But the educational landscape has changed. Political supporters of the middle classes – Blair’s New Labour, the Conservatives – no longer operate in a dichotomized system where social unfairness was not hard to detect. The inequalities are still massively with us, but the scene is now hazier, and probably deliberately so.

The change began with the shift to comprehensive education in the 1960s and 1970s. This was a threat to the by-now-traditional upper/middle class trajectory from academic schooling to exam success, a university degree and a good job. There was far greater use of the exam route by less privileged students. This meant more competition for the good things in life – the assured middle class pathway was now in jeopardy.

Since the 1980s, a new way of preserving middle-class domination of the examination system has gradually taken shape. If the keynote of the 11 plus régime had been simplicity – grammars and secondary moderns –  the secret of today’s is complexity.

Beginning with the introduction of grant-maintained schools after 1988, there is now a great variety of schools, including specialist, faith and free ones, as well as academies and what remain of community comprehensives. Instead of clear-cut lines we now have increasing opacity.

It is hard now for most of us to make sense of what is happening. It is all bewilderingly complex. Unlike when the 11 plus was under siege, it means any injustice there may be in the system does not stand out as glaringly obvious. On the contrary, it has become easier for governments to put a universalistic spin on things.

Everyone, so the message goes, has an equal chance of reaching the heights. The government is endlessly pressing schools to improve so that more students do better in exams. Michael Gove is portrayed as a reformer, keen that everyone should, as he puts it, be able to become the autonomous author of his or her own life-story.

Under the kaleidoscopic surface, however, the ideals of 1850 and 1904 live on. The better-off have no wish to see their children drop in the social scale. They still – quite understandably – want them to go to good universities and get the best jobs. In one way, their position is more precarious than it was in the decades after the war, when white collar jobs were expanding. Now, as schools minister Elizabeth Truss tells us, they find it harder to “get ahead” in an “hourglass economy” that is seeing a reduction in administrators and skilled tradesmen, if not – as yet – in higher echelons. With the rise of China and other new economic giants, their difficulties are likely to be compounded.

In a democratic age like ours, where commentators are always ready to pick up on unfairness, the best bet for the better-off is to manipulate the new world of scholastic confusion.

True, there is now a standard academic curriculum for all pupils, determined increasingly by examination requirements at 16 and over. This is very different from the divided curricula of the grammar/secondary modern system and gives an aura of inclusiveness. But its advantage for the new manipulators is that it has made league tables possible and therewith the ability to pick out at a glance which schools achieve the best exam results.

That, plus the ability of those with money to rent or buy houses in favourable catchment areas and employ private tutors to boost their children’s exam chances, has enabled the more affluent to pursue their traditional objective by subtler means.

School examinations may once have been progressive devices to break the dominance of a patronage system. They have long become, and increasingly still are, the main vehicle of keeping the social structure as it is.