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Chris McGovern: Schools already select by parental wealth. Why not by pupils’ ability?


This article was first published by the website SCHOOLSWEEK

A satellite grammar school is to be opened in Sevenoaks and comprehensive school zealots are enraged.

The “one size fits all” mantra is being threatened and the “high priests” and “high priestesses” of misguided egalitarian educational dogma fear a dam has been breached.

What’s not to like about accepting the clearly expressed wishes of a local community? What’s not to like about democracy? What’s not to like about challenging a school system that fails most children?

For failing most children is certainly built into the current system. A few days ago I told the Cambridge Union, in a debate on educational privilege, that Britain today is characterised by a new Great Divide in education.

The longstanding division between the private schools and state schools is withering away. It has been replaced by the gulf that has opened up between good schools and sub-standard schools.

The former group is made up of private schools and the best state schools, including grammar schools. Around two thirds of state schools fall on the wrong side of the divide, producing few if any candidates for the Russell Group of universities. Too many of these failing schools do equally little in terms of vocational training. They are the reason why UK educational standards lag up to three years behind part of the Asia Pacific and why employers’ organisations so often complain of unemployable school leavers.

In order to ensure their children do not fall on the wrong side of the Great Divide, selection is alive, well and all pervasive in the maintained sector.

Well-off parents can afford to buy a house in the catchment area of a good comprehensive or use tutors and influence to secure the best schools.

Our political leaders are more aware of how to play the system than most. Tony Blair’s children went to the outstanding London Oratory School for example and, then, received private tutoring from the independent Westminster School. Harriet Harman’s son went to a grammar school. Leading left-winger Diane Abbott opted to send her son to the prestigious City of London private school ­well on the right side of the Great Divide.

And what about the prime minster and his former education secretary, Michael Gove? They secured the ‘crème de la crème’ of London comps, the Grey Coat Hospital School.

The argument against grammar schools on the grounds of selection is, then, a non-starter. It is ubiquitous.

The argument for grammar schools is that children should be educated in line with their ability and aptitude.

We need grammar schools for academic children just as much as we need gold standard vocational schools for youngsters whose aptitude is practical rather than academic.

These are the youngsters who should go on to earn lots more money than most of those who are more academically inclined. Bricklayers in London, for example, are currently earning between £50,000 and £100,000 pa, and there is a severe shortage.

It is remarkable that, according to the OECD, Britain is the only country in the developed world in which grandparents, educated under the old tripartite system of the 1950s and 1960s, outperform their grandchildren in terms of educational attainment.

Less remarkable, perhaps, is the fact that Northern Ireland, which has kept its grammar schools, consistently outperforms the rest of the UK in terms of public examination results.

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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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