Monday, 18 November 2013

Grammar schools are not the answer to our problems

Sir John Major's emergence as a new-old type of 'Red' Conservative is a curiosity of our era. Serious-minded, experienced and worried about the type of grey, hidden and grinding poverty often found in our near suburbs, his is an expected but not-unwelcome (re-) eruption into our public life.

This time he's gone for the dominance of the privately-educated in our public life - which, if we look at the Cabinet or the top professions, is indeed just as 'shocking', troubling - and damaging - as he says.

The remedy some seize on, though, is a completely ahistorical fantasy. The cause of the grammar school is being heard again in the land, full of mendacity and historical ignorance about the 'opportunities' granted to 'the bright' by the existence of a test sorting the clever sheep from the not-so-clever goats at the age of 11 or 14. It was the 'system' that was adopted in England and Wales between the 1944 Education Act and the Government Circular announcing official disapproval for the idea which went round in 1965, but which took about a decade to bring this division to an end across most of the country.

It's an idea that's gained a bit of traction in recent months, with the United Kingdom Independence Party taking up the idea, various right-wing commentators writing that the end of selection was only one symbol of the end of meritocracy and our hard-and-fast aspirations to actually greater real knowledge, and even left-wing commentators making clear that selection by house price (given the premium paid around 'good' schools) isn't much of a replacement.

Memo to everyone: grammar schools didn't work by encouraging social mobility.

We only have to look to areas which still have them - Kent, for instance - to find schooling systems much more divided than elsewhere, much more scarred by the use of private tutors, and much more divided by social class than areas dotted with comprehensives.

But we can look historically at this question too. You'd expect me to say that, but studies of children born in the 1950s show absolutely no social mobility premium for areas with grammar schools. We have lots of official evidence from the 1950s that children from poorer backgrounds who went to grammars were much more likely than others to drop out. And it's much more likely that the rising economic tide of the time - and increased equality - helped people escape poverty, rather than the few Latin lessons and blazers handed out to a lucky handful.

You don't have to believe me. You can listen to two (actually very conservative) officials bemoaning the division of the school system at the time, revealed in their private correspondence in (ahem) my new book, published last year:

This country is pouring out its human wealth like water on the sands... A system under which failure to win a place in a selective school at 11+ meant complete and irrevocable denial of the coveted opportunities associated with a grammar school education could not hope to win the support o fparents, and could not survive the day when their wishes could gain a hearing.

Want to pour out our human wealth on the sands? Go ahead, build some more grammar schools. Otherwise - make universal secondary education to sixteen (and now eighteen) work properly. As someone once said: there is no alternative.