Category Archives: Libertarianism

Weighing in on the grammar school debate

I thought I’d weigh in with a few thoughts on the ongoing (and frankly rather dull) grammar school debate that has attracted quite a lot of attention in recent days. It is an argument which is often dragged to the foreground, despite a far greater problem within education looming behind it. If we are to talk about this issue sensibly, I feel a sense of perspective must be established and the possibility of real educational reform proposed.

We are told ceaselessly by the leftist egalitarians that to select by academic merit is wrong. They will often claim that comprehensives are the ideal barricade to private school dominance, despite their obvious failures, that existing grammar schools (a pathetic crop of besieged, unrepresentative institutions) are stuffed full of middle class kids and that by attending grammar schools, many children will subsequently lose out on the opportunity to mix with a vast cross-section of society.

Some of these arguments are better than others. Writing as a former grammar student (I went to a bilateral school in south east London; half academy and half grammar), I am not convinced that grammar streams overproduce a certain type of student, ethnically or socio-economically. Britain is a diverse country, and grammar schools are themselves becoming increasingly socially mixed. I understand the many concerns that people have over the reinstatement of new grammar schools, but grammar education was able to pull me, a poorer, working class student, up the ladder and provide me with the necessary tools to progress.

But here lies the interesting question. Why are so many of us worrying about the possible reintroduction of a few more state grammar schools whilst, at the same time, not paying any attention whatsoever to the extensive selection that already exists throughout our society? Children (from the very beginning of their schooling, but particularly around the age of 11) are streamed according to their postcode, religious upbringing and parental income up and down the country, but do we ever hear fuss from the grammar school abolitionists? No. They are silent about it and do not ever attempt to discuss it.

Paul Mason, one of Britain’s more respectable Left-wing commentators, wrote a very intelligent piece in ‘The Guardian’ on Monday, which can be read here:

…in which he argues that ‘their [grammar schools] aim is to reimpose a social divide entirely at odds with technological change’, the kind of change that is taking the jobs market by storm. He writes that ‘the divide in the 21st-century economy will be between tasks you need a human for and those you don’t’, and that ‘what we need, instead of selection, is to set education free’.

His final sentence hits the nail on the head. Freedom is exactly what Britain’s education system needs, though I expect Mr Mason and I have very different takes on just how to bring freedom about. A national grammar system, rather than a fragmented system furnished with as little as 163 academically-selective schools, could well be a step up from the current structure, but a system I’d like to see implemented would be infinitely more efficient.

A full blown voucher system.

Also advocated by the libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, a full blown voucher system would be similar to (though, crucially, not the same as) voucher-based, privatised systems already underway in countries such as Chile, Sweden and Hong Kong. Voucher systems are usually introduced to promote school choice, rigorous competition and involve the subsidising of the consumer, rather than (as is currently the case) the producer.

In Sweden, where around 12% of students are recipients of school vouchers, the scheme has produced generally positive results. In an article for ‘Forbes’, Adam Ozimek wrote that

“another important factor is that for each student that attends an independent school, the school received an amount equal to a large majority of the average per-pupil cost of the students public school system, and this is paid by the student’s municipality. This means that the resources available to the local public school are decreased as more students choose independent schools. This increases the competitive pressure, which the results suggest is an important determinant of improving outcomes”.

The suggestion that schools can compete in their current format in Britain is pure fantasy. During his run as Education Secretary, Michael Gove dabbled with the introduction of school vouchers, but it remains to be said that only a tiny proportion of students have actually had any meaningful access to them. Within education, the taxpayer can either subsidise the producer (schools), or he can subsidise the consumer (parents with children). At the moment, we subsidise the producer, which has lead to mass bureaucratisation, a lot of money wasted and a generally sub-standard system of education. In short, if the government is to hold its monopoly on the creation, resourcing and funding of schools, then we cannot realistically expect schools to compete, as funds provided are pegged with the school’s size, location and need.

In this context, then, there is a strong argument for the return of a national grammar school system (as was the case pre-1965, when more than 1,300 grammar schools existed in Britain, compared with just 163 today and laws preventing more from being established). If we maintain that governmental administration of schools is the best way forward, bearing in mind the three, rampant selection processes that I outlined earlier in this blog, then we must allow for bright young children, many of whom will come from poorer backgrounds, to slide into better-performing selective schools, just as we did for those politicians (Harold Wilson comes to mind) who decided to pull up the ladder behind them in the mid 1960s.

Our current Prime Minister herself benefitted from a selective, grammar school education. I hope that her posturing over the re-introduction in many parts of the country of selection-by-academic merit isn’t merely an attempt at appearing conservative. My educational utopia doesn’t look set to be introduced any time soon, and as private school dominance continues to usurp the rest of society, Britain desperately needs to re-think its strategy on education. Ideally, handing over all schools to the free market and introducing tuition fee-pegged vouchers to parents who cannot afford private schooling for their children would make for the freest, most competitive structure, but if taxpayers’ money is not rerouted, and we continue with the state-funding of schools, then I hope Mrs May acts on her conservative instincts and decides to bring back those 1,000 grammar schools, lost in the winds of egalitarian dogma.