An astonishing article written by the former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Labour MP for Manchester Central Lucy Powell, has appeared here https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/19/help-poorer-pupils-selection-social-mobility-education-brexit-grammar-schools in today’s ‘Observer’, thoroughly condemning plans to expand upon the tiny rump of besieged grammar schools in Britain.
Somebody should remind them that that number is a meagre 163, and since legislation introduced by Tony Blair in 1998, namely Labour’s School Standards and Framework Act, it has been illegal to open any new grammars in Britain (note that I do not include Northern Ireland in these figures). A quick history, too, on the figures for readers who are interested.
The Education Act of 1944 fundamentally reformed the organisation and availability of secondary school education in Britain. Prior to the introduction of the Act, which made state secondary education free, children over the age of 14 had to pay fees in order to continue their studies. The national system was then spliced primarily into two tiers: grammars for the more academically gifted and secondary moderns for those not considered so. There were also technical schools established for children who showcased particular skill in specific subject areas but not enough overall to go to grammars. Very few such schools were set up. The number of grammar schools in Britain then rose substantially, until in 1965 there were 1299.
Then, in 1965, the government (which comprised of Leftist egalitarians, many of whom benefited from selective education, such as Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister) ordered local authorities to cease opening new grammars and phase in new schools, called comprehensives, to replace grammars. The number of grammars began to plummet, reaching just 300 by 1978 and now stands at just over 160.
But back to today’s article.
The three politicians who penned the piece seem frustrated by present levels of selection within the British education system. “Times have moved on”, they write. “Expanding selection isn’t part of the answer to tackling social mobility.” I think this is odd, given how few officially selective schools are left. There must be more to selection within education in Britain than just grammars. And there is. The country’s best comprehensive schools, not available to children whose parents do not live in upper class catchment areas, are also highly selective. Important research recently conducted by the respected education charity ‘The Sutton Trust’ concluded that:
“The top performing 500 comprehensive schools in England, based on GCSE attainment, continue to be highly socially selective, taking just 9.4% of pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), just over half the rate of the average comprehensive (17.2%)”
“Living in the catchment area of a top comprehensive school is associated with a house price ‘premium’ of around 20%. A typical house in the catchment area of a top 500 school costs £45,700 more than the average house in the same local authority. The best schools measured using Progress 8 are associated with a much lower premium of 8.3%, or £18,200.”
So, grammars are not necessarily the essence of the problem. But Ms Powell, Ms Morgan and Mr Clegg fail to point this out in their article, which, they claim, concerns an issue that should be above party politics. I wonder if they think that just because otherwise partisan politicians agree on an issue that what they say is definitively correct. Their position would be far more consistent and carry much more weight if they would collectively condemn the copious amounts of selection engaged in by other schools. Those kinds of schools, perhaps, that have been actively imposed upon children by modern generations of politicians.
A huge issue to note, and highlighted by the aforementioned quotation, is the problem of selection by house price, which stands today as the main arbiter of educational selection for parents and their children. I ask the egalitarians so mightily outraged by the prospect of more grammars why they favour a system that espouses selection by wealth rather than selection based upon academic results. And don’t give me any more nonsense about the 11 plus. I don’t much like the 11 plus either, but I will at least recognise that other systems exist which could provide a much more adequate alternative to these silly tests. In Germany, for instance, a format of co-determination continues to operate in which parents and teachers sit down and mutually assess the possibility that a given child will benefit from streamed academic selection.
The article continues, with another extraordinary claim. “Now is not the time for more division or political ideology in education.” I tend to agree. So why not offer a system that will prove an effective buffer against the now overwhelming dominance of those lucky enough to attend private schools? Since comprehensives have clearly failed in this regard, apart from the aforementioned crop that perform extremely well that, chances are, your children will not get into, why not try to bridge the so-called ‘division’ of the current climate of education. The real divide, of course, stands between those kids rich enough to attend private schools and those who do not have such a luxury.
And as far as ideology goes, the most impactful and ideological change in education in the UK has been the 1960s-led comprehensive experiment, that left many poorer children in areas without a reachable grammar school (particularly in the north of England, since grammars can now be found circulated in middle class conurbations in Kent and Buckinghamshire) at the mercy of an inferior quality of schooling.
Egalitarianism has infested British schools at every level, threatening standards and discouraging success. Prizes and certificates are now given to all students, regardless of the extent of their achievement, and no longer do teachers recognise difference between passing and failing the 11 plus. If children are told that, no matter their efforts, they will succeed, they are indoctrinated with messages that disincentivize the pursuit of excellence. This culture has a profound impact on children, who as a result of their surroundings, become too comfortable and forget the value of hard work.
I have been relatively lucky. I was a disadvantaged pupil at school by government recommendations and found myself benefitting from the Free School Meals system. I only mention this because it is often used as a metric for how many poorer students attend particular types of school. I went to Erith School, in North West Kent and South East London, officially a bilateral school offering two tiers of education: selective (that included me) and non-selective. Some subjects did not acknowledge the divide and grouped children together regardless of academic ability.
Though I cannot count personal experience as anything other than subjective anecdote, I was quite clear that in classes selected on academic merit, there was a noticeably stronger urgency for learning and an atmosphere of encouraging others and welcoming progress. In non-selective environments, academic achievement is routinely mocked and those children less academically able to grasp subject matter may find themselves distracted or holding those in front of them back, contrary to the claim made that “having the brightest children in comprehensive schools helps raise standards for all, increasing aspiration and intellectual capital in a school.” My view has always been that cleverer kids are far more likely to become frustrated by lower standards around them than ever they are incentivized to help.
So, this newly-established campaign, just one of many created by establishment politicians who are dismissive of the merits that come with academic selection (despite often being beneficiaries of it themselves), is just another example of how divide and ideology have come to stand as the pillars of British education. Those political figures who deride grammars as being instruments of these characteristics aren’t even bothering to look at the flaws in their own proposals.
Quite how anybody can stomach it is beyond me.