In a post-Brexit world anything is possible – even the revival of Conservatism. So it is encouraging to read courtesy of The Sunday Telegraph that Theresa May intends to bring back grammar schools.
The case for grammars is well known. They produce excellent exam results, they readily create a coherent ethos in which non-academic qualities, such as sporting and artistic excellence flourish, they promote high standards of discipline, and they encourage social mobility – the issue that now tops the agenda of social reformers and has caught the Prime Minister’s attention.
The Brexit vote, which shocked the political establishment, contains many lessons, many of which have yet to be learned. But one of them is clear. The reason why so many people in the Midlands and North voted to leave the EU was the belief that they and their families had failed to benefit from the overall improvement in living standards over the past 20-30 years. They had seen jobs, housing and access to schools, hospitals and public services go to immigrants and they had been pushed to the back of the queue, denied the chance to make more of their lives.
To cite just some of the research on social mobility, children born in 1958 stood a far better chance of earning more than their parents than those born in 1970. The OECD has concluded that social mobility in Britain has stalled since 1970 – roughly the point that successive governments began closing grammars and embracing comprehensive schools. As Harold Wilson famously and mendaciously put it, the idea was a grammar school education for all. But it has not worked out that way.
In fact, the traffic has been in the other direction. Increasingly, over the last 20-30 years, the top jobs, especially those in the professions such as law and medicine, have been dominated by the products of the public schools – a trend that reached its apogee in David Cameron’s “posh boy” Cabinet. The Prime Minister (Eton and Oxford) and his Chancellor (St Paul’s and Oxford) gave the impression of running the government as if it were a private dining club. For all the talk of ‘we are all in this together’, only those with the right social credentials were invited to join the ruling Notting Hill set.
May, a grammar school girl, has blown all that away. One of the most striking features of her Cabinet is that it contains the lowest proportion of independently educated ministers since the 1940s and – despite the demise of the grammars – nearly as many grammar school graduates as those who went to private schools.
Cameron, like Tony Blair before him, famously resisted the return of selective education, fearing it would tarnish his brand of “modern compassionate” conservatism and be too easily portrayed as turning back the clock. But, as the Brexit vote so graphically demonstrated, an awful lot of people reject the mushy mediocrity of so many of our state-run services. These are people who don’t value the comfort blanket of Brussels or the dreary uniformity of the bog-standard comprehensive school.
They want to get on in life, to progress up the social ladder and to give their children the kind of opportunities that increasingly seem to be limited to those who already have wealth, power and an exclusive education. And in a post-Brexit world, where more than ever we are going to have to live by our wits, these people sense that we cannot afford to let so much young talent go to waste. In a globalised, competitive marketplace, if countries like Britain are going to continue to dine at the top table then we will have to get the best from all our people.
The return of grammar schools, which now educate just 5 per cent of the children of England, would represent an end to the “all must have prizes” philosophy that dominates so much of state education. They would signal a harder-headed approach in which schooling is tailored to the aptitude and ability of the pupil and a real effort is made to offer a chance of excellence to people from all walks of life.
They would also raise the reputation of state schooling. Every area of human endeavour – be it the military, science, the arts, sport, business and much more – needs beacons of excellence, institutions that command respect and admiration across society. The Premiership needs the Manchester Uniteds and the Chelseas, just as the arts world needs the National Gallery and the Tate. But where amid the grey uniformity of state schooling are their counterparts? In the 1950s and 1960s every town and every county had state schools of which they could be proud. Now the plaudits are reserved for schools where money is the most important entry qualification.
Despite the fact that the latest opinion poll cited by The Sunday Telegraph reveals that seven in ten people want the ban on grammars lifted and eight in ten believe they will boost social mobility, Mrs May will encounter ferocious resistance from the educational ‘Blob’ to any move to bring back selective schooling, whether that is done by setting up new grammars or allowing existing academies to select their pupils.
And she will have to take steps, like those already done in Birmingham, to ensure that bright but poor children get the chance fully to benefit from grammars. Less academic youngsters will also need help through creating a new generation of top-class vocational and technical schools.
State education – at every level from the nursery to the university – is dominated by hard core leftists, determined to impose their defeatist and narrow ideology on young people. The NUT can shout and scream all they like. The PM will have the public behind her if she shows she has the courage to face them down and offer genuine opportunity for all.