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Chris McGovern: The BBC stacks the deck against grammar schools – no surprise there


Grammar schools make the BBC scared. This much, at least, was obvious from Radio 4’s Today Programme ‘road show’ from Southend on Friday. ‘Toing and froing’ at intervals between a grammar school rated “outstanding” and a comprehensive school ranked “inadequate” was clever. It allowed a case for ‘unfairness’ to be made and re-made and made again. Especially effective was the use of children who failed the 11+ exam to speak about their pain – “anxiety”, “stress” and “tears’ were the terms floating across the airways along with “social segregation” and the despair at being on the “wrong side’ of the 11+ divide. As a ‘balance’, we heard the voice of a grammar school boy confessing that his school was perceived by his mates as “a bit posh”.

The BBC must be mightily scared of grammar schools to risk manipulating the evidence in this manner. And it did not stop with the ‘feel my pain’ vox pop. We were treated to what is, presumably, regarded by the Today Programme as a fair and open debate on the subject. This means that you put two anti-grammar school alpha male zealots up against one lovely lady who favours the surviving grammars schools, but is more concerned about all schools pulling together.

Enter stage left, Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, and anti-grammar school former Ofsted Chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw. Enter stage right, Charlotte Marten, Vice-Chairman of the Grammar School Heads’ Association, a strangely pusillanimous organisation that seems afraid of its own shadow. It attracts the contempt and hostility of the educational establishment and sees appeasement of the Blob as the only possible response. How different a representative of the National Grammar School Association might have been.  Its chairman, Robert McCartney QC, would have made mincemeat of Courtney and Wilshaw. Was this why he was kept off the programme?

Needless to say, we had the same tired arguments trotted out by the opponents of grammars – divisive, unfair, middle-class dominated, out-dated and so on. Alongside this nonsense we had the claim that comps are the best of all possible school systems in the best of all possible educational worlds. We just need to spend more money on them and all we be fine. Leave it to the Blob! The Blob knows best!

Here is a sample of just some of the issues that the Today Programme did not address:

  1. The comprehensive school system, based as it is on post code, has left us the most socially divided country in the developed world, as even David Cameron admitted to his party conference a couple of years ago.
  1. The greatest beneficiaries of the comprehensive school system are private schools. They were withering on the vine in the heyday of grammar schools.
  2. UK comprehensive schools have required a dumbing down of the public exam system and, even for the new version of GCSE and A-Level exams, a manipulation of grade boundaries. The grammar school exam, GCE O-Level, is now banned (but still exported to Singapore). The GCSE that replaced it has been close to the standard expected of primary school children in the Asia-Pacific, as the BBC’s own investigation of schools in South Korea demonstrated. Comps in the UK will work if they start at age 11 with GCSE rather than waiting until pupils are age 16 before taking that exam.
  3. Children need to be educated in line with their aptitude. For every new grammar school, there should be a new technical/vocational school for children who are not necessarily academic but whose abilities need to be developed in more practical and vocational areas. This is the norm around the world. The argument we should be having is at what age the academic and the technical/vocational pathways open up. It is 11 in Switzerland but as late at 15 in China.
  4. According to the OECD, we are the only country in the developed world in which grandparents educated under the former grammar-secondary modern system outperform their grandchildren in basic employment skills. In those days, as Frank Musgrove showed (“Schools and the Social Order”), two thirds of grammar school pupils were the sons and daughters of manual workers.
  5. Spending more money on comprehensive schools will not solve our educational underperformance. We have increased expenditure by 900 per cent in real terms since the 1950s but to no avail in terms of standards. Today, we spend eight times more per head on pupils than the Vietnamese and yet we trail Vietnam by a long way in terms of educational attainment measured by the OECD. If we wish to raise standards here, we need to adopt the cost effective ‘whole-class’ teaching methods of the Asia-Pacific educational super stars. But that would take back to style of teaching associated with the past, with O-Levels and with grammar schools. “We have nothing to learn from the past or from the so-called Far East!” bawls the Blob. “Stick with us. We knows what best for your kids. Just keep on pouring in the cash!”

The BBC is in awe. It has been captured. Small wonder that it is so scared of listeners hearing an informed discussion about grammar schools.

(Image: Comedy Nose)

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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