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Chris McGovern: Don’t hold your breath. Despite Theresa May, the Tories won’t revive grammar schools


A renewed effort is being made to expand the number of grammar school places. Weald of Kent Grammar School for Girls in Tonbridge, Kent is to make another bid to open an annex in nearby Sevenoaks. Although new grammar schools remain banned, the current Government has changed the rules in order to allow existing schools, including grammars, to expand. To date, not a single grammar school ‘annex’ has been set up but, in addition to Sevenoaks, a ‘satellite’ grammar school is being proposed in Maidenhead, Berkshire with, it seems, some support from its MP, Home Secretary, Theresa May.

Sadly, for a political party that claims a commitment to liberty and to choice, the Conservatives have a poor record when it comes to education and, certainly, with regard to grammar schools. Their curtailment of freedom includes the enforcement of a comprehensive school system initiated by Labour but, largely, carried through by the Tories. Only 164 grammar schools survive in mainland Britain. They are all in England. There are another 69 in Northern Ireland.

As Education Secretary (1970-1974), Margaret Thatcher gave politicians at a local level the powers to determine school organisation. She was committed to grammar schools, but few Conservative-controlled councils agreed with her. Bewitched, bedazzled and befuddled, they embraced and implemented the seductive policies of their political opponents. ‘Comprehensivisation’ was the opium of town hall Tories up and down the land. The call for ‘equality’ was addictive, self-righteous and, oh, so modern and forward looking!

Unfortunately, ‘equality of opportunity’, which was what grammar schools provided for many children in disadvantaged circumstances, was replaced by a something rather more potent and, certainly, more poisonous – ‘equality of outcome’. Independent schools were jubilant, of course. Competition from grammar schools had been making their future look bleak. The demise of grammar schools was a turning of the tide for them and an enshrinement of privilege and power for those who could afford to buy an education.

The socialist dream of a more equal society to be brought about by comprehensive schools has turned into a nightmare. Class privilege, based on school background, is now more entrenched than ever. In Britain, ex-public school pupils dominate positions of power, privilege and responsibility in a way that is unparalleled elsewhere in the world.

Desperate efforts to remedy the situation have, mostly, made matters worse. First of all, came the all-ability comprehensive school examination.  In the late 1980s, mesmerised by illiberal educational ‘experts’, the Conservative government banned the grammar school exam. the GCE O-Level, and introduced the GCSE examination. It quickly became the ‘exam’ no one could fail – ‘equality of outcome’. The ‘pass’ rate has rocketed to close on 100 per cent but international comparisons and the experience of employers and universities suggest that standards are, in reality, lamentable.

The introduction of the country’s first ever National Curriculum followed on from the new exam. Undemanding and educationally damaging, it was a further measure to ensure ‘equality of outcome’. In that aim it has been successful. It has needed revision after revision in ever more desperate attempts to restore some of the rigour once associated with grammar schools and O-Level.

Does the recent news about the possibility of a few more grammar school places and, indeed, support for grammar schools from Boris Johnson, mark a change of heart amongst most Conservative Party leaders? Unlikely! They seem more committed to making comprehensive schools work better, to further revising the National Curriculum and to reforming public exams.

This method of raising educational standards is also known as ‘flogging a dead horse’.

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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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