Let us pause in life’s pleasures and take a look at what Toby Young actually said.
The prosecution alleges that Toby Young described special needs pupils as “troglodytes”, and said that giving schools wheelchair access was and example of “ghastly political correctness.”
The context here is a 2012 article in the Spectator on the subject of School Examinations. The point under discussion was whether all school children should take the same examination at the age of 16, or whether there should be two or more different kinds.
When my Dad was at school, there was only one kind of exam: the School Certificate. When I was at school, there were two kinds: the Certificate of Secondary Education, for the pupils who were expected to leave school at 16 and get a job; and the General Certificate of Education, for those who intending to stay on at school and go to college. The C.S.E had been created for the old Secondary Modern schools, and tended to be in technical and practical subjects like photography and metalwork. The G.C.E (more commonly known as the “O Level”) was created for the old Grammar Schools and tended to be in more academic subjects like history and Latin. In 1988 these two exams were combined into a single General Certificate of Secondary Education. When Mr Young wrote the offending article, the idea of bringing back the old “O” level was being mooted. Young was very strongly in favour of this idea; he had apparently been talking to some people who were very strongly against it.
The reason that the “two tier” exam system is controversial can be encapsulated in the fact that throughout the article, Toby Young equates “more technical and practical” with “easier, for stupid people” and “more desk based and academic” with “harder, for clever people”. Not two different kinds of exams, equal but different, with (to make up a phrase on the spur of the moment) “parity of esteem”: but a Good Exam and a Bad Exam, or at any rate Better Exam and a Worse Exam.
It was ever thus. The GCSE / CSE split was a legacy of the old “tripartite” system, where children were sent to Grammar Schools and Secondary Modern Schools on the basis of an IQ test at age 11. The question was never “Will you go to Secondary Modern and maybe learn how to be an engineer; or will you go Grammar School and maybe learn how to be a barrister?” It was always “Hooray, you’ve passed and your prize is to go to the Grammar! Boo, you’ve failed and your punishment is to go to Secondary Modern!” One of the books about education I studied for my “O” level Sociology described an infant school headmistress telling little kids that if they failed their 11+ they would be “dummies” and “dopies”
If we were actually having a discussion about exams and how best to measure the achievement of school-leavers then you could make out a case for “two kinds of exam” and you could also make out a case for “only one kind of exam”. It is not the sort of question which has a definite right or a definite wrong answer.
It doesn’t necessarily follow that an exam which everyone takes, regardless of ability, has to be easier than one which is only taken by clever people. We could easily contrive a paper full of open ended questions like “What were the causes of the First World War?” and “Why did Othello kill his wife?”, and give some marks to the candidates who state the simple facts of history or the bare bones of Shakespeare’s plot, but a lot more marks to candidates who can contrast the viewpoints of a number of different historians and scratch beneath the surface of the Bard's text. We could certainly come up with a maths paper in which the quicker student was able to answer 100 questions in the time it took the slower one to answer 50. (I suspect that this would fill some elements of The Right with horror. The Right prefer black and white to shades of grey. The point of exams is not to grade children into OK / Good / Very Good / Excellent / Bloody Brilliant. The point of exams is to divide children into Sheep and Goats, or at any rate Artisans and Philosopher Kings.)
My personal theory is that it is very hard to persuade an employer that the holder of a “Grade D English” has shown himself able to write correct, grammatical, well punctuated essays and would therefore be quite able to hold down an office job, even though the person with the “Grade A English” had shown he could use the language with more maturity, flair, and fronted adverbials. I think that a lot of employers leap to the conclusion that the holder of the Grade D can hardly read or write. I also think that there are people who are perfectly competent at arithmetic but hopelessly confused by calculus and geometry, and that it is better to present an employer with a “Grade I CSE Maths” than a “Grade D O Level Maths” even if both represent about the same level of numeracy. So like Toby, I would run with two different kinds of exams.
By an astonishing coincidence, this is the system I grew up with.
But Toby Young isn’t actually talking about exams. Toby Young is actually talking about conspiracy theories. The gist of the essay is that sinister forces called “inclusion”, “equalities”, “Harriet Harman”, “the therapy squid”, and (of course) “political correctness” have turned state schools into a dystopian nightmare.
His first bugbear is equality and specifically the 2010 Equalities Act. Young thinks that the idea of equality in the political sense — that everyone should be treated the same — necessarily leads to the belief that everyone actually is exactly the same — and then to what he calls an “all-must-have-prizes” culture.
”All must have prizes” is a reference to the Caucus race in Alice in Wonderland: it was impossible to win, but everyone participant got a prize just for showing up. But it is also the title of a book on education by the far-right conspiracy theorist Melanie Phillips. It isn’t clear if Young literally believes that “schools” nowadays give prizes and qualifications to everyone regardless of ability, or if “all must have prizes” is just a code word for “oh, isn’t everything awful nowadays”.
Young claims that before the government could restore O levels it would have to repeal the Equalities Act, because the Equalities Act means that any exam has to be equally accessible both to stupid people and to clever people. He has subsequently claimed that the word troglodyte was not intended as a slur against children with special educational needs: it was in fact reference to the movie One Million Years BC. I suppose it is possible that he was just trying to be funny: envisaging a grunting Neanderthal in a leopard skin trying to answer questions about the role of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet. (It is interesting, albeit completely irrelevant that when he wants to reference cavemen, the first thing which comes into his head is a 1966 dinosaur movie starring Raquel Welch, as opposed to, say, Quest For Fire or 2001: A Space Odyssey.) So let’s ignore the unfortunate word choice and look at what he actually said:
“If Gove is serious about wanting to bring back O-levels, the government will have to repeal the Equalities Act because any exam that isn’t ‘accessible’ to a functionally illiterate [person] with a mental age of six will be judged to be ‘elitist’ and therefore forbidden by Harman’s Law.”
“Functionally illiterate” could be hyperbole. We have all heard Grammar Pedants fulminating that "young people nowadays are functionally illiterate" when what they really mean is that they've just spotted someone writing “who” when they should have written “whom” or putting exclamation marks at the ends of sentences which don't begin with “What…!” or “How…!” But “with a mental age of six” is pretty specific. O Levels are taken at age 16, and a person of 16 with a mental age of 6 is the very definition of special educational needs.
So. Either this man really believes that the Equalities Act requires all school exams to be easy enough that a severely mentally handicapped person can take them; or else by “functionally illiterate with a mental age of six” he really means “the kind of person who would have gone to a Secondary Modern and done CSEs under the old system”. Which is better than calling special needs students cave-men, but not much. It takes us right back to that infant school teacher and her dummies and dopies.
I cannot help mentioning that J.C Wright (who has by now failed to win so many Hugo Awards that I have lost count) says that anyone who went to an American state school is a “zombie” or a “moorlock” and when pressed insists that he believes this to be the literal truth.
Does Young really believe that the Equalities act forbids anyone to do anything that could be judged to be “elitist”? In fact, it simply offers legal redress to people in nine “protected categories” if they are subjected to harassment, discrimination, or victimization. You might think that it is simply providing a legal framework for stuff that everyone thinks should happen as a matter of course. A black person shouldn’t be passed over for promotion because they are black; a Jewish person shouldn’t be bullied at work because they are Jewish; you can't fire someone just because they're over 50. Some people on the Right don’t like this: they think that “everyone should be treated fairly” means “everyone should have identical outcomes”. They think “you shouldn’t get first prize in the race just because you Dad is the PE teacher” is logically identical with “you shouldn’t get first prize in the race just because you are the fastest runner.” So when an act of parliament says “no-one should be excluded from work for an irrelevant reason like the colour of his skin or the gender of his lover” they hear “schools are only allowed to set exams if they are easy enough for cavemen to pass.”
The Equalities Act might very well allow the mother of a 16 year old who can neither read nor write and has the cognitive ability of a 6 year old to say “My child has the same right as every other child to an education that is appropriate for him or her.” It could not possibly be interpreted to mean “My child has the same rights as every other child to a GCSE in English Literature” This is fantasy and Toby Young must know that it is fantasy.
He gets deeper into the realms of fantasy when he starts to talk about a bogeyman he calls inclusion.
“Inclusive. It’s one of those ghastly, politically correct words that have survived the demise of New Labour. Schools have got to be ‘inclusive’ these days. That means wheelchair ramps, the complete works of Alice Walker in the school library (though no Mark Twain) and a Special Educational Needs Department that can cope with everything from dyslexia to Münchausen syndrome by proxy.”
There is nothing wrong with hyperbole; I myself have used hyperbole on billions of occasions. But words do have meanings. If someone says “You never see anyone on the BBC who isn’t a one-legged black lesbian” they may not literally mean that you never see anyone on the BBC who isn’t a one-legged black lesbian. But it is reasonable to infer that they think that you would naturally expect that only white able bodied heterosexuals should appear on the BBC. If you don’t agree with them on that, the joke isn’t funny.
So what do Young’s words mean?
He says that the word “inclusive” is ghastly. It isn’t entirely clear whether he means “I wish we had chosen a less ghastly word to express the same idea more clearly” or “The idea itself is ghastly”. He says that the word “inclusive” is “politically correct”. Again it isn’t clear if he means “the idea of inclusiveness is politically correct” or “I wish we had chosen a less PC word than inclusive to express the same idea more clearly.”
And what does he mean by political correctness? Does he just mean “the idea that you shouldn’t use words which denigrate or belittle people”? (But what’s so ghastly about that?) Or is is he one of those who thinks that “PC” is part of a plot by Jewish intellectuals in Frankfurt to destroy civilization as we now know it?
I don’t imagine that Young has done a survey and discovered that all school have all 14 of Alice Walker’s novels on the shelf; and that no school has a work by Mark Twain. It seems overwhelmingly unlikely to me. I would imagine that copies of Tom Sawyer are much easier to track down than copies of The Colour Purple. But of course Young hasn't picked a random example. Mark Twain is a white guy; Alice Walker is a black lady. The implication is that schools are removing books by white males and replacing them with books by black females. He expects his readers to agree with him that this is “ghastly”. Inclusive doesn’t mean “both black writers and white writers” — it means “no white writers”. It’s about as clear an example of a racist dog whistle as you could imagine.
Equally obviously, he doesn’t really think that all schools have an S.E.N department that are skilled in the treatment of Munchausen’s Syndrome By Proxy. He has picked on Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy because the name sounds funny. He places the obscure condition with the funny name alongside the common condition because he wants us to infer that catering for children with dyslexia and catering for children with Munchausern’s Syndrome by Proxy are both equally ghastly ideas.
The most benign translation from the hyperbole I could manage would be:
“Schools have to accommodate to children with disabilities, both in sensible ways, like being wheelchair-accessible and giving help to dyslexic pupils, and in unreasonable ways, like trying to spot the signs of Munchhausen's syndrome and having books by both black and white writers in the library. Having a single exam for children of different abilities is one of the unreasonable demands. And its hard to talk about this because it is framed with unhelpful, jargon expressions like ‘inclusion’.”
But I think it very likely that the correct translation is:
“Having a single exam for children of different abilities is only the latest in a large number of obviously unreasonable demands that are being placed on schools. Other unreasonable demands include allowing children with wheelchairs access to the building; providing extra help for children with dyslexia; and having books by non-white authors in the library. This is all part of plot by the Frankfurt Group to destroy civilization.”
Young maintains that the real reason that some people want a single, unified exam is that they fear that children put in for the easier one would “suffer a permanent blow to their self-esteem”, that they are “so fragile that the ‘stigma’ of not doing O-levels would cause permanent damage”. He extends this into a wider allegation that “teachers” are no longer interested in passing on knowledge and see themselves instead in a therapeutic role (where “the therapy industry” is another Bad Thing).
But this is a straw doll. I don’t think that the main argument against selective education is that the children put into Secondary Modern School or the lower stream will feel sad. I think that the main argument is about results. The claim is that overall, looking at both troglodytes and Spectator readers, you get better educational results if everyone goes to the same school and sits the same exam than you do if you sent the clever people through one door and the less clever people through another door. It is a claim that could theoretically be tested. It would be fairly easy to look at an area with a unified system and an area with a two-tier system and find out which population gets the best educational results over all.
But of course Mr Young has an argument which trumps all of that. He can prove that segregated exams are better than unified ones, beyond any contradiction. He went through the old GCSE / O Level System and he turned out all right. He did CSE’s; he failed his CSE’s; he went back to school and took some O Levels, he went to Oxford and now he writes for the Spectator. So he is living proof that the system works. Stick close to your desk and never go to see and you all may be rulers of the queens navee.
Discussions about education always seem to founder on the rocks of the Argument From Individual Personal Experience. In another article, Young literally says that he would be okay with schools being allowed to beat students because he was beaten and it didn’t do him any harm.
The case for the defense, then, is that Toby Young did not say that special needs children were troglodytes, or that wheelchair ramps were ghastly. Not quite. What he did say was that schools are run by softies who won’t allow children to fail in case it makes them sad; that the 2010 Equalities Act forces schools to make exams so easy that mentally retarded children can pass them; that white authors are banned from school libraries and black authors are mandated; and that all this is in some way connected with something he calls political correctness.
Regular readers will have spotted why I found this so interesting.
Young’s essay utilizes arguments which are remarkably similar to those in Screwtape Proposes a Toast. The Toast was published in 1959. O Levels were still in full swing; middle-class children went to grammar schools and dummies and dopeys to secondary modern; dyslexia was much less well understood and there was no obligation to make schools wheelchair accessible. Most teachers still had a cane in their cupboard. And yet the complaints are exactly the same.
Toby Young rails against the Equalities bill and the “all must have prizes” culture; Screwtape thinks that the belief in democracy will lead to a world where everyone is encouraged to say “I’m as good as you”.
Young thinks that educational sages disapprove of segregated exams because less able children may suffer “an irreparable blow to their self esteem”. Screwtape says that
“Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma — Beelzebub, what a useful word! – by being left behind.”
Young thinks that instead of teaching, teachers nowadays are “are essentially therapists whose job is to correct the harmful effects on children of bourgeois society.” Screwtape says that
“ the teachers – or should I say, nurses? – (are) far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching.”
Why are the two essays so similar? I can think of three possibilities.
1: Toby Young is the Devil.
2: Toby Young has read Screwtape Proposes a Toast and has unconsciously repurposed some of C.S Lewis’s arguments for his own column.
3: In every decade, regardless of what is really going on in schools, social conservatives always say the same things. They always say that there is too much equality nowadays, that clever people are being held back to help the dunces; that teachers are too busy molleycoddling the kids to do any real reaching. They have always said this kind of thing. And they probably always will do.