Recently, Theresa May has unveiled plans to build some new Grammar Schools. I will not beat about the bush, I am very glad to see this development.
Allow me to offer some backstory. Prior to the 1965, British state education ran on academically selective lines. At the age of 11, children would take a test – the ‘Eleven Plus’. Those who passed the test would go to a Grammar School, those who didn’t would go to a Secondary Modern. About 20% of students were selected to attend Grammar Schools. From the mid-sixties however, coinciding with the Labour Party’s election victories of 1964 and 1966, a vast overhaul of the education system was enacted. This was driven in large part by a Labour Cabinet Minister by the name of Anthony Crosland, a man dedicated to destroying ‘every last f***ing Grammar School in the country!’ (his words, not mine).
Consequently, Grammar schools were replaced by Comprehensives. Students were no longer assigned places according to the Eleven Plus, and academic selection was gradually phased out of the system. This process was continued into the early Seventies by Margaret Thatcher, the then Government Minister for Education. It must be stressed that both Labour and the Tories are co-responsible for this process (much like the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, which was tantamount to a stealth decriminalisation of Cannabis, but I digress …). By the 1990s Grammar Schooling was virtually dead. When Labour won their crushing electoral victory in 1997 they formally put the final nail in the coffin of academic selection by enacting an outright ban on the construction of any new Grammar Schools in 1998. David Cameron’s election as leader of the Conservative Party in 2005 marked the end of any formal opposition to Comprehensive schools by the Tories, though they had been tacitly complicit in their proliferation for decades.
That brings us more or less to the present day, and to an education system that is frankly rather appalling. The most glaring issue is the sharp decline in educational standards, manifesting in the replacement of the GCE O Level by the G.C.S.E and by straight up adjusting the boundaries of grades to make it appear as though results were higher than they really were. Author and journalist Peter Hitchens gives a thorough analysis of this ‘grade inflation’, as well as the wider issue of Grammar Schools, on pages 167-182 of this link: http://civitas.org.uk/content/files/theselectiondebate.pdf. It is well worth a read. Incidentally Hitchens has also devoted a chapter of one of his books, ‘The Fall of Meritocracy’ in his 2010 book ‘The Cameron Delusion’, to the issue of Grammar Schools.
There are of course still ‘good’ schools and ‘bad’ schools – this alone makes a mockery of the egalitarian ideal behind the creation of Comprehensive schools in the first place, but the matter is far worse than this. Instead of a simple and straight-forward test of aptitude, children are now allotted places in Comprehensive schools based on a dizzying array of requirements baffling to almost everyone. The primary metric however is where you live, with those pupils living in houses within a school’s very precise ‘catchment’ area having the best chances. As a result, buying a house in a catchment area of a renowned, high-quality Comprehensive school (a very rare thing) can sharply increase the house price – making it unaffordable to most people. As a result, high-quality education is largely reserved for the rich. This is what has become of the Comprehensive Schooling system designed with the best of Socialistic and egalitarian intentions.
Make no mistake; the shift away from Grammar Schools was in truth not really about education. The radical reformers of the 1960s regarded Grammar Schools and bulwarks of tradition, hierarchy, and discipline – and promptly decided that they had to go. In other words, Comprehensive schooling was one part of their larger revolt against the ‘Establishment’. This was why Anthony Crosland got so heated about the matter he vowed to ‘destroy every last f***ing Grammar School in the country!’ Actually, forget my comment about this being done under the best of egalitarian intentions, it seems to have been done largely out of spite by people like Mr. Crosland who didn’t really know what they were doing.
In any case, Theresa May’s effort to resurrect Grammar Schools is really rather surprising. She has given no prior indication being aware of the matter. The aforementioned article by Peter Hitchens, written some time ago, noted that May was one of those politicians who claim to have attended a Comprehensive School just like any average person, when in reality she attended a rare high-quality Comprehensive which ruthlessly discriminates by wealth.
What is very unsurprising however is endless roll-call of closed-minded, champagne-socialist Labour MPs, often hangovers (if you’ll pardon the pun) of the Tony Blair era, who will inevitably line up to denounce the idea of academic selection. The process that these well-off left-wing politicians use to buy up the places in the best Comprehensive schools, while vociferously rejecting an option which would give working class kids a chance at social mobility (i.e a simple test), is a swindle reminiscent of the injustices in the old U.S.S.R. Long gone are the days when Labour Councils built, and took pride in, their Grammar Schools. The real ‘clause four’ of the Labour Party was not nationalisation, it was Comprehensive Schooling. Today there are many thousands of bright pupils from low income backgrounds whose talent is squandered among the enormous, mixed-ability classes of standard Comprehensive schools – and the Labour Party couldn’t give a damn.
Don’t expect a there to be a fair public debate on Grammar Schools. Expect there to be lurid warnings against ‘going back to the 1950s’ and ‘segregating children at the age of eleven’ (they are still ‘segregated’ at eleven now of course; except now wealth rules rather than talent). Expect there to be promises that Comprehensive schooling can give every single student a high-quality education (a hopeless, utopian ambition), and expect people to dishonestly try to use statistics from the remaining Grammar Schools as evidence that a national system of academic selection wouldn’t work, when in reality there are so few remaining Grammar Schools that they tell us little about what a nation-wide system would look like. Expect there to be horror stories about the old Secondary Moderns, where-as in truth prior to 1965 even students who had failed their Eleven Plus were winning places at Universities; and that was without the heavy government pressure on Universities and fudging of grade boundaries that is used today.
The pre-1965 system had its flaws; but all of them could have been addressed without destroying Grammar Schools, and – more importantly – not one of them has been solved by the shift to Comprehensives. I do not believe that returning to academic selection will remove all the privileges that kids with rich parents have (private tutors and suchlike). But surely it is obvious that a simple test of aptitude offers the poor a better chance against the rich compared to the Comprehensive system’s ruthless selection by wealth? To claim that Grammar Schools are no better for social mobility than Comprehensives is to claim that half a loaf of bread is the same as no bread at all.
James Wright (@JTWright71)
Picture credit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26480053