iii) The 1950s and 60s
The Butler Education Act of 1944 promised secondary education for everyone. It attempted to achieve this goal by raising the school leaving age to fifteen and dividing elementary education – till now all ages 5-14 - into primary and secondary schools, providing school meals and milk and admitting state pupils to grammar school on scholarships.
The Act offered opportunities for working-class pupils: gave them access to grammar schools, and opened the door to university for some. Notable working-class beneficiaries included Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, responsible for founding cultural studies, and the social historian E.P. Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class (1963).
Despite these advances, education was still very much classed-based, and working-class students were in the minority: only one in ten children of unskilled manual workers was successful in the eleven plus examination.
The working-class novelist is still an exceptional figure. However, notable working-class writers of this period are Alan Sillitoe, David Storey, Barry Hines and John Braine. Their novels, set in the North of England, are famed for their gritty realism and portrayal of angry young working-class men.
During the 1960s, many films placed characters in working-class settings and reproduced the surface of working-class life. However, the problems of working-class characters are seen in personal terms rather than because of structural inequalities - which had the effect of suppressing class issues while staging it.
The increasing migration from one class to another during the 1960s suggested that class barriers were crumbling, and it seemed Britain was making significant progress towards becoming a classless society. Sociologists Michael Young and Peter Wilmott analysed the effects of social mobility on traditional working-class communities in the study, ‘Family and Kinship in East London’ (1957). They attested to the breakdown of conventional working-class communities and the loss of a dense network of family and friends.
People expressed their identity through consumerism, and others valued them through their possessions. Consequently, the relationship between the individual and society - a central theme of the nineteenth-century novel - had become the relation between the individual and their class: specifically the struggle to escape it. For example, the characterisation of Joe Lampton, the hero of Braine’s novel Room at the Top (1959), perceives his class difference in purely economic terms and will go to any lengths to acquire the material accoutrements of the middle class.
While Billy, the young protagonist of Hines’s novel Kestrel for a Knave (1968), is a symbol of those outside the affluent society, where the deprivation of his physical environment matches the poverty of his emotional one. Trapped in his class, Billy is not working-class but part of an emerging ‘underclass’.