Sally Tomlinson

How far has Ignorance – one of William Beveridge’s five Giants that stalked the land in 1942 – been overcome some eighty years later?  My father left school at 14 in 1914, becoming a messenger on a bike for the army in the Great War. At the start of World War 2, in 1939, some 88% of young people still left school at 14 – not much progress there. But over the next 80 years, through which I have lived, starting school as a child evacuee, the Giant was hobbled if not completely eradicated. Ignorance seems, however, to have regrouped and recovered as the free market ideology, dating especially from the Thatcher years, has produced in England, (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now have separate systems)  a pointlessly competitive and  potentially corrupt  schooling system.  

Other countries in post-war Europe managed to banish much ignorance in their populations through more just and equitable education, without the often hostile denigration of England’s state-maintained system and its teachers.  Schools in England have been turned into business-oriented institutions with all the claims for confidentiality, efficiency and performance that characterize business.  Parents have been demonized as vigilantes at worst and nuisances at best. Criticism of policy and practice is discouraged and claims that governments are interested in ‘what works’ avoids the question ‘works for whom?’

There have been many advances in education over the years, especially up to the 1970s. But Beveridge himself envisaged only a simple system of more literacy, numeracy and skills for the working classes, and noted the hostility of many of his own class to educating the masses.  The determination of many politicians and policy-makers to retain a social-class based school system, extolling ‘academic’ schooling, downgrading the ’vocational’ and allowing the obscene levels of child poverty that now characterizes our post-pandemic society, has helped to reproduce a divided and divisive system.

The people in charge of a state-maintained system have, even today, almost all been educated in a separate private system, with an astonishing number attending the University of Oxford

The people in charge of a state-maintained system have, even today, almost all been educated in a separate private system, with an astonishing number attending the University of Oxford, with some clinging to eugenic beliefs that the ‘lower’ classes and some minorities have lower innate intellectual capacities. As one writer has suggested, it is ‘public schools boys’ who still mainly run and perhaps ‘ruin’ Britain (Verkaik 2018). They are supporters of a theory of ignorance – agnotology. This describes the deliberate production of ignorance by those with power, who use lies and misinformation to confuse and control the rest of us. Attendance at the ‘public’ school Eton makes it far more likely that a person will end up as Prime Minister! Our recent Prime Minister, Liz Truss, is unusual in that she actually attended a comprehensive school before she went on to take a degree at Oxford University, but she has tried to suggest her old school was not good enough, which infuriated the school!

So how did the English school system go about deciding who should get certain kinds of knowledge and who should be kept ignorant of much important knowledge. Cyril Norwood’s 1943 White Paper on educational reconstruction and the 1944 Butler Education Act famously recommended schooling from 5-15 years with ‘elementary’, now primary, school to 11 years. This was to be followed by attendance at one of three types of secondary school: grammar, technical or secondary modern, plus special schooling for those with a ‘disability of body or mind’ and an exam at 11 to ‘select’ the academic child, who, like me, often left school not knowing how to change a light bulb.

By the 1970s only a small number of local authorities retained their grammar schools, with a vociferous lobby that continues to the present day to urge grammar school expansion with rampant hostility towards comprehensive schooling. Many urban secondary modern schools, underfunded and with a high turnover of teachers, became the  comprehensives so easily derided into the 21st century as ‘bog standard’ and ripe for conversion into ‘Academies’.

The establishment of Academy schools and their Trusts as corporate entities responsible for their own budgets, outside the purview of local education authorities, and with their expansion into Multi-Academy Trusts (MATS),  removed many powers from local authorities. It also diverted funds from actual teaching and learning into the high salaries of CEOs and payments to unelected Trustees who manage multiple schools and the education of hundreds, if not thousands of children. The academization rigmarole has left the public largely ignorant of  how schools are run and operate, and some parents, particularly of those with  children  with special educational needs,  furious  as to how the government  makes claims about provision which are simply not fulfilled.  It has also created, as many commentators have pointed out, a system that is ripe for corruption and lacks any democratic underpinning.

The success of comprehensive schooling has exposed the lies about every child’s ability to learn and represents a genuine removal of ignorance

But the slow success in attacking the Giant of Ignorance was based on an expansion of schooling first to age 15, then in 1972 to 16, then in 2013 joining other European countries in requiring young people to stay in education  or skills training to 18. The success of comprehensive schooling has exposed the lies about every child’s ability to learn and represents a genuine removal of ignorance. Despite this, governments over the years have consistently refused to acknowledge the benefits of teaching children of all backgrounds together, as happens in Finland and Canada, which top international exam league tables such as PISA (the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment).

Further success in overcoming ignorance has been the gradual acceptance that girls’ brains are equal to those of boys, although even up to the 1960s a report suggested that a majority of girls should primarily  be educated to be wives and mothers. Once girls were offered more equal schooling, by the 2000s they began to outperform boys at almost all levels in tests and examinations, including in 2021 in maths examinations at 16. But women teachers did not receive equal pay with men until 1960, and women still struggle to translate their educational success into business and professional lives.  

Another success has been a focus on the early years, those who were termed ‘infants’ and were taught in separate infant schools into the 1960s. Early years education in nursery and reception classes has become an important policy focus. Nationwide, Children’s Centres, despite funding reductions and being part privatized, have become a way of guarding against ignorances in later years.

By the1980s with more comprehensive schools established and Kenneth Baker’s GCSE (with all its faults) in place, test scores rose steadily

Lies and misinformation abound on the standards front.  By improving primary education and allowing   more secondary students to actually prepare for and take examinations, standards as measured by test results rose steadily. Attempts by eugenically inclined Black Paper writers and some politicians to claim that standards were, or are, falling or slipping are simply not true. In the 1960s some 20% of pupils took the (then) GCE, secondary modern pupils were downgraded to a lower type of exam (CSE). By the1980s with more comprehensive schools established and Kenneth Baker’s GCSE (with all its faults) in place, test scores rose steadily.

By 1991 some 50% of 16-year-olds taking GCSE exams passed with the benchmark of A–C, by 2018 nearly 70% of those who sat the exams gained the A–C equivalent. The 5% entering universities in Beveridge’s time had become 35% by the 1990s and well over 40% in the 2000s. A continued failure has been the lack of information, funding, resources and respect for Further Education and apprenticeships, which has left a trail of ignorance in its wake over provision for vocational courses and training in crucial skills.

Partial success at removing ignorance does include the greater attention paid to children and young people who, after Mary Warnock’s report in 1978, became children with special educational needs (disability added in 1995 to make SEND). Despite the failures in adequate funding, expanded labelling and confusing legislation both in schools and the wider society, there is now a much greater acceptance of educational needs and disabilities. Inclusion has become a popular concept, if not a reality. Schools continue to exclude pupils who are troublesome or problematic, especially if they fail to contribute to higher exam scores in the competitive market of testing and funding, and there is a potential resurgence of ignorance with the development of ‘Alternative Provision’.

There has been mixed success in the reduction of violence in schools since the legal violence allowing teachers to hit children was abolished in 1987 (1999 in private schools). Unlike other European countries it is still legal in 2022 for parents to hit their children. In some mainly urban schools, violence between pupils and gang rivalries spill over but by and large schools are reasonably orderly places. The harassment of girls, gay and trans pupils, and even teachers, aided by the use of social media is a new component of the Giant not envisaged or acknowledged in the Beveridge times. Schools can lay the basis but cannot be expected to teach civil and moral behaviour in a society that is not supportive of such behaviour.

The biggest barrier to reducing ignorance has been the narrowing of the school curriculum

But the biggest barrier to reducing Ignorance has been the narrowing of the school curriculum by successive governments into a vehicle for government-approved learning, the ultimate aim being to pass tests and examinations rather than to educate. Policed by Ofsteds, Ofquals and dictats on what can and cannot be taught and influenced by politicians who look back on their own ‘traditional’ schooling, extolling Latin and misunderstanding the digital world are all supports for Ignorance. Most teachers think that the curriculum does not contribute to the broad and balanced knowledge promised in legislation. The failure to teach the truthful history of imperialism and how Britain became multiracial and multicultural counts as a ‘Monstrous Ignorance’ which is slowly being recognized. The Black Lives Matter movement and the acknowledgement of racism in sport are currently doing more to educate the population and help decrease racism and xenophobia than schools.

Those in government during World War 2, Beveridge, Attlee and Butler, who had all been educated in ‘public’ schools, knew something of the lives of the ‘common people’, and they were joined in government by a few working-class men and women. The private system may have given them confidence and entitlement, but they had the humility to realize that the country not only needed a better educated work force, it also needed to become a fairer and more socially just democratic society.  It did not need the strategies that keep much of the population in ignorance and deny them important knowledge.

The Giant of Ignorance will not be demolished until a comprehensive school system and a fair, re-imagined common curriculum for all children and young people is the accepted mode of schooling

Those in charge now seem to have lost humility and empathy and to have minimal knowledge and understanding of the lives of most of their fellow citizens. The current private school and selective state policies seems guaranteed to perpetuate such ignorance.  The marketization and semi-privatization of schooling and the ending of much democratic control through local authorities are ugly and ignorant policies. The Giant of Ignorance will not be demolished until a comprehensive school system and a fair, re-imagined common curriculum for all children and young people is the accepted mode of schooling.

But this is not a fairy story, so never underestimate Giants.

Drawn from Sally Tomlinson’s book, Ignorance, with Agenda Publishing.


Verkaik, R. 2018. Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Ruin Britain. London: Oneworld.

Sally Tomlinson started her career as a social worker and infant school teacher and has worked in higher education for over thirty-five years. She has taught, researched and written in the areas of race, ethnicity and education, educational policy and special and inclusive education and was a member of the Commission on the Future of Multi-ethnic Britain, which reported in 2000. She has held Professorial Chairs at the University of Lancaster, England;  University of Wales, Swansea; and as Goldsmiths Professor of Education Policy and Management at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she also served as a Pro-Warden (Vice Principal). She is now Emeritus Professor at Goldsmiths, and an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Education, University of Oxford.

Header Image Credit: Agenda Publishing


Tomlinson, Sally 2022. ‘Ignorance’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (3): https://doi.org/10.51428/dsoc.2022.03.0004