(The Conservative Woman Grammar School debate between Graham Brady MP and Sir Michael Wilshaw takes place tomorrow. Final free tickets can be applied for here.)
Everyone I meet who went to a grammar school like me feels most extraordinarily privileged and indebted. ‘I went to a grammar school and I support them’ is the sine qua non refrain, except for the odd Bolshie lefty like Melvyn Bragg (who did very well out his, thank you very much).
It ‘worked’. But for our excellent state-funded schooling would we be ‘where we are today’? So we do feel pretty passionate about the opportunity it gave us. We, the children of the aspirational working and impecunious middle classes, received a quality of education that previously – bar the very few charitable scholarships – was the preserve of the wealthy. Yes, we were fortunate. No, we shouldn’t be guilt tripped over it.
In my class there were as many kids from village schools and council estates as from the town’s professional and managerial classes. Posh kids still went private, as they always had and always will, unless public schools get banned too.
By the time I won my place to Cambridge (fully means test funded by the local education authority) grammar schools, which selected the brightest 25 per cent of children by IQ test from all strata of society, had proved themselves a route to the top.
The social impact of the 1944 Education Act could not have been more dramatic. From 1964-97, every British Prime Minister from Harold Wilson to John Major was grammar school educated. Brains and merit had outsmarted class and public school privilege – or so it seemed. It did not occur then that this most quiet and effective of social revolutions would be so short lived.
It was. Grammars did not, it turned out, suit Labour’s socialist, collectivist agenda.
When Harold Wilson came to power in 1964 on the back of his ‘white heat of technology’ speech, his aspiration was to “replace the cloth cap [with] the white laboratory coat as the symbol of British labour”. Yet he proceeded to ignore the failed parts of 1944 Education Act’s tripartite system – the technical school education needed to realise his ambitions and the secondary moderns that arguably offered a less rigorous education than before.
Instead, Wilson’s public school educated, social theorist Secretary of State for Education, Anthony Crosland, decided to destroy the bit that did work.
Their abolition duly began in 1965. The Education Act of 1976 finished them off. If Crosland dug their grave it was another privately educated Labour Education Secretary, Shirley Williams (St Paul’s Girls), who banged the final nail into the coffin. The postscript was left to another public school boy, Tony Blair. In 1997 he legislated against any selection at all outside the surviving grammars.
Yet comprehensive schooling, far from equalising opportunity and outcome, had simply succeeded in fuelling the social divide. Blair’s new Labour Government heralded in a new wave of public school PMs, from Blair through Brown to Cameron. What irony!
Public schools, once posh comps, had adopted the selective and competitive grammar school ethos abandoned by the State system under comprehensivisation.
Baroness Williams of Crosby moved house to get her own daughter into a grammar school. In 2012, she still claimed comprehensive schools (for other people’s children) as her greatest achievement: “I have never in any way regretted them and I still believe strongly in them,” she said, blaming their poor outcomes, in true Animal Farm fashion, on the fact that “in many places they were heavily skimmed because people kept grammar schools in place beside them.”
Au contraire, in very few places. A ‘canard’ if ever there was one. From the 1500 grammar schools of my day, educating 25 per cent of the secondary school population, the 164 left in England (plus 69 in Northern Ireland) today educate barely 4 per cent of the population.
Demand has overwhelmed supply and skewed the system. Parents desperate for this scarce resource will travel the length and the breadth of the country and, yes, pay for tutors, to help their child wine a place. Why shouldn’t they? Anyone who disparages them must disparage anyone who tries to improve their lot.
Were there a glut of grammars this would not be the case. The percentage of children entitled to free school meals (today’s definition of disadvantage) would not be so low. There’d be no need to adjust entry requirements downward to accommodate social disadvantage. Not if you increased supply to meet demand.
This is what Mrs May, a grammar school success story herself, wants to do and all hell has broken loose. “Grammar schools will not level up but drive a wedge between middle class and working class children,” goes the critique.
Umm. Today I suspect the wedge they’d create is more likely between aspirant immigrants and poor whites.
Anti-grammar rhetoric has the few sacrificed on the altar of the many. For comprehensive schooling, like the EU, shows no sign of getting better. The Les Ebdon social compensation school of education philosophy now even permeates The Times. It’s not fair. Grammars ‘suck’ the brightest children out of comprehensives, its Saturday ‘leader’ stated. Good, that is what they are meant to do.
There is at the heart of the debate, The Times went on, ‘a single uncomfortable truth: ‘Selection is good for those selected and no so good for those who aren’t’. No. The single uncomfortable truth is something else. It’s called the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – resentment of others’ success, the idea if we can’t all win, then no one can – that someone’s success has to be someone else’s failure. Not true. Children are different. The most successful in business are often not academic at all.
The problem is not grammar schools but, bizarrely, the ‘offence’ of the opportunities they create. This is not to be allowed in case someone’s feelings are hurt. To avoid this we must kibosh competition and choice, smother freedom and shame any parent with the audacity to want this for their children.