Monday, April 15, 2024
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Kathy Gyngell: Grammar school critics are obsessed with cutting down our tall poppies


Time to drop this futile grammar school fetish. So decrees former public school boy and Tony Blair speech-writer, and Times columnist Philip Collins. Grammar schools have become ‘the cockroach of public policy’. His words.

All they’ve achieved, he once claimed, has been to put Andrew Neil, Michael Portillo and Diane Abbott in a TV studio. And woe betide Tories who advocate their return.  They are guilty of the worst of motives – selfish interest.

Picking out MPs David Davis, Graham Brady and Liam Fox, Collins hones in on the ‘bogus claim’ that grammar schools are justified by social mobility. How David Davis, council estate son of a single mother, would have made it without his grammar, Collins conveniently ignores.

His animus is not unique. It is pervasive in this country – that ‘chippy’ mentality that says if I can’t have it then you can’t either – begging the question of why such small mindedness and lack of generosity of spirit abounds?

The Aussies call it the tall poppy syndrome. For anyone unfamiliar with the term it describes a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above others. It is far more repressive of genuine social mobility than is class.

Carried to its logical conclusion, this mean spirited attitude means that if the majority of the population can’t afford or achieve something, no one should be able to have it – whatever their talent or ability, or however hard they have grafted for their achievement.

So fish fingers and burgers for all; no more leg of lamb or fresh fish and vegetables for anyone if some can’t afford it or ‘access’ it. After all diet is far the more fundamental discriminator of life chances than education. Why not a common dress ‘uniform’ while we are about it – Chinese worker style? And really Phil is getting lazy in his thinking – how can he allow some of us to live in bigger houses with gardens when the mass cannot?

The big mistake of Levellers like Phil is to deny the role grammar schools have played in giving a generation of bright kids from all backgrounds the chance of an education in line with their ability and aptitude, as Chris McGovern described on this site on Saturday. The fact that secondary moderns failed was no reason to kill off the good that was Grammar Schools in the 1944 Education Act.

In my grammar school class of thirty, not even a third had professional parents. Most  bussed in from outlying villages and farms and the edge of town council estates – kids with backgrounds similar to that of David Davis.

They were hardly the children of the sharp-elbowed middle class. If this is the crux of the anti case today it is shortsighted and flawed, when such a large proportion of society now is middle class.

According to the Great British Class Survey, the middle comprises 31 per cent of the country and, adding in ‘new affluent workers’, it rises to 45 per cent.

Is this population, to say nothing of the various other class categories, to be deprived of the chance of a competitive, selective education for the sake of ‘equality’?

Do they all have to settle for ‘academies’, previously known as comprehensives and before that as secondary moderns, none of which appear, despite their name changing, to have had the effect of raising overall standards of education.

Why would Phil Collins want to doom every child to this instead of adding a competitive grammar school catalyst into the system? Why doesn’t he and his chip on the shoulder mates listen to people like this lady who wrote to Chris McGovern?

“No-one came from a poorer background than me, yet I passed my ‘eleven plus’ because I had an insatiable desire to read and learn. Unfortunately, when I was in the third year (year 9 nowadays), my impressive grammar school was turned into a comprehensive. My how standards dropped!  The change was almost immediate: the best teachers left, pupil behaviour worsened, the uniform became a thing of the past.”


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Kathy Gyngell
Kathy Gyngell
Kathy is Editor of The Conservative Woman. She is @kathygyngelltcw on GETTR and is back on Twitter.

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