Forgive me if I don’t join in the acclamations of joy that have heralded the proposed return of grammar schools in conservative quarters. Yes, in their day they did give bright children from modest backgrounds the chance of upward mobility, but would they be quite as effective today? There is strong evidence that society is becoming more academically stratified: highly intelligent, well educated young men and women either meet their partners at university or in their twenties as fellow graduate professionals. Their children then inherit their considerable genetic and environmental advantages, creating powerful barriers to social mobility.
We should also never forget how socially destructive the old system could be: the effect of failing the 11+ on many children was the equivalent of receiving the Mark of Cain, and blighted many for their entire lives. The culprit was not actually the existence of grammars but the ancient British snobbery that you were academic or you were nothing: those that attended secondary modern schools – the majority – were to an appalling extent simply thrown on the scrapheap, considered fitted to a life of low ambition and the drudgery of the daily grind. Such outcomes should never be allowed again: as Chris McGovern argued in TCW last week, the re-emergence of grammars only makes sense in the context of a serious drive for vocational education. Chris then hopes the rise of such high quality vocational schools will finally create a sea-change in British attitudes towards vocational skills.
However, an immense problem is the chicken and egg nature of the situation: the cognitive bias of the British establishment towards an arts-based academic education, largely geared towards the needs of the professional middle-class service economy of the South East, is one of the most entrenched features of our society. After all, good quality technical schools to complement the grammars were supposed to be built in the 1950s for identical reasons as those given today. Few were.
Although the excellent Free School initiative pursued by Michael Gove has already led to some new vocational schools set up with the help of industry, such as the JCB Academy, in order to see such schools created and flourish in numbers, serious incentives must be given to those industries that directly stand to benefit from a highly vocationally skilled workforce. Thankfully, a variation of the Free School model itself may provide the answer.
Let me propose the following simple model: allow free vocational schools set up by industry to make a profit, with a revenuestream not only from the standard government funding per pupil but also from a proportion of the employers national insurance contributions paid on behalf of an employed product of such a school. (Naturally this arrangement would be limited to a certain number of years after the pupil left the school and entered the world of work.) Firms who wished to set up schools would have every incentive to produce good quality students they could themselves employ, because as well as producing a skilled workforce they would be effectively helping the financial fortunes of the school they had helped to found. Nor would they fear that they were just spending capital producing a workforce that their competitors could poach, as ultimately their competitors’ NI contributions would be flowing directly into their schools coffers.
As the journalist Fraser Nelson has long observed, profit-making Free Schools are a big success in Sweden, where the profit incentive has led them to spread like wildfire. Our Government has already inflamed left-wing opinion by proposing to bring back the grammars. Let it now have the courage for an even bolder education revolution: tipping the balance away from the historic prejudices in British education by introducing profit-making vocational free schools.