Grammar schools are not a magic bullet
Let’s be clear: I am in favour of selection. And so are you. So is every member of the British ruling classes, and it is one of the great white lies of modern British educational politics that we have somehow outlawed selective admissions from our schools.
It is not just that we still have 164 grammar schools, achieving superb results with an intake they decide themselves. In those areas where academic selection is outlawed, the criteria for admission are increasingly financial.
Across the country, pupils are selected for good schools according to the ability of their parents to afford a house in the catchment area, and those who can’t afford the cost of housing are crowded out – no matter how clever their children are, no matter how well they would do in that school.
Some families have a sudden access of faith, and go to church often enough to persuade the clergy that their children deserve admission to a church school. Throughout our inner cities, there are bourgeois families who use their economic power to buy their children an edge over everyone else in the class.
They pay for tutors, like the former Labour education minister Margaret Hodge, and it is largely thanks to her diabolical leadership of Islington that, in some schools in the borough, the number receiving expensive out-of-school tuition has risen to 50 per cent, and no one complains about the consequences for the 50 per cent of children whose parents cannot afford the tutor.
In some cases, you will find Left-wing parents actually paying for tutors from some of the most brutally selective schools in the country – as the Blairs did, secretly buying in top-dollar coaches from Westminster – and yet still somehow preening themselves and claiming that they are giving the little ones a state sector education.
And then there are people like me, who are the beneficiaries and users of a system that is both financially and academically selective; and in the category of those who use fee-paying education, I would of course add any number of soi-disant Lefty mums, from Diane Abbott to Polly Toynbee, who in the end despaired of what the state had to offer them in London, and allowed biology to triumph over ideology, stuffed their principles and sent their children to public school.
This, my friends, is the British Establishment, and you may therefore find it incredible, illogical, immoral that we who use selection should seem willing to ban, by our laws, the very selective procedures that have given the schools we use their continuing and growing advantages. How dare we ban selection? you may ask, when we use it ourselves; and of course we should not ban it: it is a fact of life.
It exists in the grammar schools; it exists in the rapidly expanding fee-paying sector; and one way or another it exists throughout the maintained sector. And yet it is a very long day’s march from supporting selection in principle to believing that we can solve the educational problems of this country by plonking grammar schools all over the landscape.
If we go back to the 11-plus, and the shaming sheep-and-goats separation of our children, then we will be producing a 1950s solution to a 21st-century problem, and a solution that has been continuously rejected not just by Labour, but also by Tories when we were in power. For all the frothing and raging of my friend Heffer next door, it was Margaret Thatcher who whacked more grammar schools than Tony Crosland, and who failed to reintroduce them throughout her time in office.
And why? Because they became deeply resented by the parents of the children who didn’t get in, not to mention the 11-plus failures themselves, and it became an arithmetical and electoral certainty, over time, that the rejects outnumbered the successful.
It is no use the Tory party now calling for a wholesale restitution of grammar schools, as some kind of symbol of ideological virility, when many parents would simply interpret that as a savage willingness to let their children be judged and found wanting at the age of 11.
And as David Willetts rightly points out, the crisis in our schools – and the chaos in children’s lives – is now so great that many of the bright poor would not even find their way to the bottom of the ladder; the 11-plus successes would be overwhelmingly middle-class – and even then, only a minority of the candidates.
Grammar schools are admirable, but they are not a magic bullet, and the whole discussion is a distraction from the overwhelming need to help the majority. We need to give teachers more autonomy, more power to discipline, and to liberate them and their pupils from the drudgery of over-testing.
We need whole-class teaching, and we need to insist that all pupils are taught to read by synthetic phonics, so that we end the disgrace whereby 44 per cent leave primary school either illiterate or innumerate.
If we sort that out, it would be a greater advance for social justice than anything achieved by Labour. We need to re-yuppify the teaching profession, so that first-rate graduates once again think of teaching as a rewarding, holiday-rich alternative to the City or the law.
We need to get more male teachers into primary schools, and build on the work of the Hutchinson Foundation, which is now paying to encourage black male teachers to serve as intellectual role models in inner-city schools.
We need to stop the drift away from crunchy subjects, and make sure that maths, the sciences, history and languages are properly valued; and yes, of course we need academic selection. We need far more setting within schools: 60 per cent of classes in secondary schools are still mixed-ability.
And yes, we should build on the city academies, and give them ever more freedom; and if 11 is too early for academic selection between schools, then we could in time consider whether schools and their parents might want to introduce academic selection at 13, or 14.
But if we think that “Bring Back Grammar Schools” is the solution to our problems, or that the Conservatives are on to a winner with the 11-plus, then we are frankly deluding ourselves.