The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, was notably reluctant to acknowledge her grammar (selective) school education during her years of political ascendancy. She is, therefore, an unlikely champion for the re-introduction of selective education.
Much nonsense is said on grammar schools, and as a bright child left to flounder in one of my country’s many ‘bog standard comprehensives’ (a phrase popularized by Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alistair Campbell) I feel this issue keenly.
This week the government suggested that new ‘free schools’ would be allowed to select on ability – the distinguishing characteristic of grammar schools.
The first of the silly arguments made against grammar schools is that they don’t help social mobility. The alleged demonstration of this comes from the below-average number of students in contemporary grammar schools that are entitled to free-school meals. In Britain, this is a common barometer for family wealth.
It is undoubtedly true that the children of the affluent middle-class predominantly access contemporary grammar schools. But this is because there are now so few of them, and they are often situated in the more prosperous parts of the island. Because a grammar school education is in such demand, affluent families move into the catchment areas of the few remaining grammar schools; this pushes up house prices in those areas and makes them enclaves of prosperity. But this only happens because successive governments have closed down the majority of grammar schools; in a situation in which there was a grammar school available to the children of every town, they could not become the preserve of privilege, which to a certain extent they currently are (although that is still a caricature).
Grammar schools were made available to the bright children of the poor as a consequence of R.A. Butler’s 1944 Education Act. 20 years later, when Harold Wilson’s Labour government started the comprehensive experiment, a majority of students at Oxford and Cambridge had come from the state-system. That generation of grammar school children went on to dominate public life, in the media, in politics, and in business. Andrew Neil, editor of The Times in the 1980s, is a classic example of the success of the grammar school children, who took on the ‘old-school tie’ and won. Between the 14th Earl of Home, in 1964, and Tony Blair, in 1997, not a single Prime Minister was privately educated.
The second argument is that the 11 plus was a bad system. This was the examination, which all 11 years olds sat; pass and you got in; fail and you didn’t. But no-one is suggesting the return of the 11-plus. All supporters of grammar schools recognise that children develop differently, and would want more flexibility to start late, or drop out if it transpired that the child was out of his or her depth.
The third argument against them is that the new grammar ‘free schools’ are going to open in areas that do not really need them. This was the line pushed this week by Angela Rayner, the opposition Labour Party Education spokesperson. It is argued that they will open in areas where there are already well-funded schools, and not in areas where funding is low.
Of all the ugly socialist arguments, This is the ugliest. It says to parents, who desperately want a good education for their child, that they don’t ‘need’ it, and that they should be grateful for what they’ve got, If their children can read or write who needs more? Who needs to learn Latin, or the piano? To say of an area that it does not ‘need’ better schools is both contemptuous, and contemptible.
The final argument is that it is unjust to focus attention on the most academic, and that all children ought to be treated equally. This has a superficial plausibility, but it can’t be seriously maintained. Ability determines every aspect of life: if a child is to study in a musical conservatory, he will be selected according to merit; if a child is to join a football team’s youth program, she will be selected on ability. The same is true of dance, cooking, or vocational skills. Sports teams, dancing schools, and orchestras, would not succeed if they could not pick the candidate who would most benefit from what they had to offer. What would we say of a carpentry firm that refused to offer apprenticeships to those who would flourish in the role, and instead offered them indiscriminately to those who did not have sufficient talent to excel in carpentry?
Some children will be natural linguists; others take quickly to science; others to creative art. Everyone has something to contribute. But in education, alone of child-centred activities, we affect to treat people uniformly, and abandon them all alike.
The main argument for selective education is that, for those who are academic and can benefit from it, an excellent education will enrich their lives immeasurably. But the secondary argument is that no society can flourish unless it deliberately tries to encourage the best that society has to offer, whether that is in music, art, sport, or academia. A society that takes the bright children of the poor, and abandons them to a ‘bog standard comprehensive’ for 5 wasted years, is a society that can neither deserve, nor expect, to succeed.