‘This house wants to bring back the grammar schools’ was the motion I proposed in a debate at the Cambridge Union a few days ago. Historian and journalist Simon Heffer was alongside me but the third proposer, Graham Brady, chairman of the Tories’ 1922 Committee, had to pull out at the last minute. Presumably, deciding who should be prime minister took precedence even over an issue that is so important to him. Happily, a late replacement was found in a first-year student from an Indian immigrant background. He introduced the motion with a knowledge and passion that would have much impressed any supporter of grammar schools.
Against the motion was Baroness Shirley Williams, who did so much to promote and justify comprehensive education during her time as Education Secretary (1976-1979). Now in her late 80s, she remains as alert as ever. Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, was also in opposition to the motion. More significantly, though, this was the Cambridge Union Presidential Debate with the Union’s charismatic and super-popular outgoing president, Charles Connor, both determining the motion and choosing to oppose it. Backed by a phalanx of fervent supporters there was never any doubt that grammar schools would get the thumbs-down.
Calling for grammar schools to be brought back is, in educational circles, akin to calling for the return of the Black Death. Encouragingly, though, a high percentage of ‘don’t know’ abstentions meant that the final vote did not provide the anti-grammar schools side with an overall majority. Perhaps some of those present did take note of Simon Heffer’s suggestion that at Cambridge, the most selective of educational institutions, opposition to ‘selection’ was a touch hypocritical.
Sadly, the prime minister’s precarious political position has ensured that grammars are no longer on the Conservative Party agenda. They should not stay off it for too long. Contrary to what comprehensive school zealots would have us believe, the demise of grammar schools has brought less, not more, fairness to our society. ‘Britain has the lowest social mobility rate in the developed world,’ David Cameron informed his party conference in 2015. He could have added that this is the crowning achievement of Britain’s version of ‘comprehensive’ schooling.
Those opposing the motion at the Cambridge Union were unwilling to recognise that all that comprehensive schools have brought us is entrenched social apartheid based on school catchment area and house price. This was pointed out by the Left-leaning Sutton Trust as long ago as 2010. Recognising the inadequacy of the ‘free school meals’ label to identify ‘disadvantaged’, the Trust formulated a far more accurate measure based on those families supported by ‘income benefit’.
Their results showed that in better-off areas only 4 per cent of comprehensive school pupils were disadvantaged as opposed to 70 per cent in deprived areas. Remarkably, amongst the hundred most socially selective state secondary schools, ninety-one were comprehensives, only eight were grammars and one was a secondary modern. Equally telling was the finding that the most socially selective comprehensives take around 9 per cent of children whose parents are on income support as against 13 per cent for grammars.
Evidence for this social apartheid is now piling up. In 2016 the Social Mobility Commission, chaired by Labour’s Alan Milburn, reported that a ‘child living in one of England’s most disadvantaged areas is 27 times more likely to go to an inadequate school than a child living in one of the least disadvantaged’. As recently as last August, following an analysis of Ofsted data, the Labour Party reported that pupils from poor homes are nine times more likely to attend secondary schools rated ‘inadequate’ than children from advantaged backgrounds.
Nor are things going well for us in terms of academic standards as a consequence of going comprehensive. According to the OECD, we are the only country in the developed world where grandparents, many educated under the old grammar school tripartite system, outperform their grandchildren in terms of the basic skills of literacy and numeracy. Employers have consistently made it clear that, as a result of poor schooling, around 20 per cent of school leavers these days are in effect unemployable. We rely on immigrants to fill the recruitment gaps.
It is small wonder that the UK has slipped down the international rankings of educational attainment. The OECD PISA tests place our fifteen-year-olds three years behind the likes of Singapore where most pupils still sit our old grammar school exam – the GCE O-Level. Yes, we ban it here but export it to our economic rivals and educational superiors.
The state of crisis in standards brought about by Britain’s comprehensive schooling was well summed up in a 2016 ‘World Economic Forum Report’:
‘England’s teenagers have the worst levels of literacy, coming in last place with more than 1 in 5 having a low level of literacy. The country doesn’t fare much better in numeracy, coming second to last with more than a quarter of 16-19 year olds lacking basic numeracy skills.’
The Blob’s PR background to falling standards is that, according to Ofsted, 88 per cent of our schools are ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ and that exam results are better than ever, even with new and tougher public exams. Indeed, the government’s examination regulator has told the Sunday Times that ‘all our kids are brilliant’. She omitted to say that the manipulation of grade boundaries has enabled such universal brilliance.
Teachers, of course, know the truth and around half of recruits leave the profession within five years. The dumbing down of standards and classroom disorder, consequent on our version of comprehensive school ideology, are much to blame. So, too, is the silencing of dissent. If teachers wish to retain their livelihood they need to conform.
As I told the students at the Cambridge Union, prospective applicants for teaching training are likely to be automatically excluded if they confess to any sympathy for grammar schools. Even teaching children according to ‘aptitude’ is something of a no-go area on the basis that it is ‘discriminatory’. This was made very clear to me by the sanctified ‘Teach First’ charity with whom I debated on a separate occasion.
Perhaps the only way forward in terms of enlightening the beneficiaries of selective education such as that provided by Cambridge and other elite universities would be to make these universities, too, comprehensive. How about a catchment area for Cambridge? Would not that make admission fairer?
There is, too, a way of offsetting the advantage bestowed by expensive local house prices and by being the intelligent offspring of university dons. We could bus off to Luton the brightest and best school leavers from Cambridge. They will discover there an outpost of Bedfordshire University. Welcome, brothers and sisters, to the super-fair comprehensive education system for the 18+ age group.