Boris Johnson has renewed his call for more grammar schools, describing them as vehicles for “social mobility” that politicians of all parties “conspired” to destroy. He is right and, as a general election draws closer, political parties should take note. Most people in our country support grammar schools. An ICM poll for the National Grammar School Association registered 70 per cent in favour of keeping the 164 grammar schools in England and the 68 in Northern Ireland. Only 19 per cent were against their retention.
This should make uncomfortable reading for our political leaders and for our educational establishment. The attitude to grammar schools in these circles is antipathetic in the extreme. Sadly, it is sometimes those ‘decision makers’, who themselves benefitted from a grammar school education, who are most keen to pull away the grammar school ladder. Michael Wilshaw, the Ofsted boss, is a prime example. This ex-grammar school boy is committed to preventing today’s children from receiving the benefits of a grammar school education such as he received. “The future is comprehensive,” he proclaimed at a recent conference. And what is more, “there is only one school model [comprehensive] that can realistically educate all our children to a standard they and the country deserve.” How selfish! How narrow-minded! How misguided.
Fortunately, the vast majority of people are much less blinkered. Most of us understand that the ‘one size fits all’ philosophy is discredited. The ICM poll indicated that 76 per cent of the general public would like to see more state grammar schools. Only 17 per cent were opposed to the idea.
Wilshaw and ‘anti-elitism’ fanatics are inclined to dismiss any support for grammar schools as, at best, the nostalgic pining of an older generation. In fact, according to that same poll, support for setting up new grammar schools is strongest amongst 18-24 year-olds, with 85 per cent in favour. The educational and political establishment is ‘out of touch’. Not for the first time, Mr Johnson has his finger ‘on the pulse’.
These days, whichever political party is in power, a desire to meet the needs of all of our youngsters defines educational policy. Logically, this should mean that, after setting down the crucial foundations at primary school, the type of education that a child receives should match his/her ability. We need at least two pathways – one broadly vocational and the other broadly academic. The peculiarly British belief that ‘vocational’ is inferior to ‘academic’ presents a major barrier. However, the notion that an historian or a physicist is more valuable than an electrician or a plumber lasts only until the lights go off of a frozen pipe bursts.
The Chief Inspector may wish to fulfil Harold Wilson’s dream that comprehensive schools will be “a grammar school for all”, but this is not in the best interests of all children. Academic pupils certainly need an academic grammar school education, but non-academic youngsters are equally entitled to high quality vocational schooling. David Cameron and his ‘team’ need to wake up to what the people want and to what our economy needs. They need to listen to Boris!