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‘The Tories must have a death wish’ if they want to bring back grammar schools

‘The Tories must have a death wish’ if they want to bring back grammar schools

🕔12.Sep 2016

Does the Conservative party have a death wish?

Having conspired through David Cameron to hold an utterly unnecessary referendum the Tories succeeded in sacrificing the most advantageous trading agreement this country has ever signed, and whatever is said to the contrary Britain will be out of the European Union before long and that will not be good news for the UK economy.

Now Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, has dusted off and repackaged one of the most divisive causes of all…..the return of grammar schools.

Surely it can only be a matter of time before those other favourite tub-thumping subjects from the 1950s are given an airing at the party conference – national service and capital punishment.

For some reason, Mrs May and her advisers believe that building hundreds of grammar schools would be advantageous to children from poorer backgrounds and a popular vote-winning policy, or perhaps more realistically a diversion from the perils of Brexit.

What they don’t seem to realise is that there aren’t that many people around now able to remember grammar schools since most were phased out in the mid-1970s and, crucially, were never re-created not even by the free-wheeling right wing governments of Mrs Thatcher. Yes, even Margaret Thatcher, herself the product of a grammar school education, did not think turning the clock back would be a good thing.

The Conservative party has been split for years over the grammar schools debate. Neil Carmichael, the Tory chair of the backbench education committee, is opposed as is former education secretary Nicky Morgan and the two will carry scores of MPs with them.

Michael Gove was against the return of grammars when education secretary but is said to have changed his mind and is supporting Mrs May, who sacked him when she moved into Number Ten. People will no doubt draw fairly obvious conclusions from that.

For sure, Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, will be cheered to the rafters when she stands up at the Tory conference in Birmingham next month to announce the return of grammar schools. The Government, though, should be careful not to imagine that grassroots party members at the ICC are in any way representative of public opinion. Possibly Mrs May could learn a lesson from A J Balfour, an early 20th century Tory prime minister, who declared he would sooner take advice from his valet than the Conservative conference.

Mrs May, who promised to stand up for the interests of the many “not the privileged few” when she became prime minister, has a battle on her hands in her own party to get support for a seismic shift back to selective education, never mind convincing the rest of the Commons and the country.

In a sense this is an academic argument, please excuse the pun. Whatever Mrs May and Ms Greening are saying now, the prospect of grammar schools ever taking off on a large scale is small indeed.

Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench Tory 1922 Committee, who you might expect to be enthusiastic about what is being proposed, told the BBC over the weekend that he did not think there would be “a sudden outbreak of thousands of new grammar schools across the country”.

Mr Brady is probably correct. Plenty of caveats are already being placed on Mrs May’s revolution that will make it extremely difficult to deliver anything approaching a national plan – for example, schools wishing to convert will have to promote social mobility by taking a proportion of pupils from lower income backgrounds or by opening ‘feeder’ primary schools in disadvantaged areas.

With most of the education establishment implacably opposed, and with parents at best ambivalent, it would take highly controversial legislation from the Government (and funding) to force education authorities to open new grammar schools. That’s not going to happen, not least because it would be difficult and time consuming to get a grammar school bill through the Commons and the Lords.

Two issues lay at the heart of this debate – selection and social mobility.

Those of us old enough to remember grammar schools, and in my case to attend one, will recall the utterly arbitrary 11-plus examination and the sense of failure often for the rest of their lives that descended on those not making the grade.

Eleven is a very young age to determine whether children possess ‘academic’ abilities, a fact that was not lost on parents all those years ago. The 11-plus was recognised as unfair, became unpopular, and was a driving force behind the abolition of grammar schools post-1974.

There was resentment at the ability of sharp-elbowed middle class families to pay for their children to be tutored to pass the 11-plus, an option that simply did not exist for many working class families. The refusal to build in to the system further selection opportunities at, say, the age of 13 and 15, underlined the lunacy of a ‘once in a lifetime’ chance at age 11, and contributed to a general feeling 40 years ago that grammar schools had run their course and should be replaced by a fairer system.

Of course, what’s in place now is far from perfect and the eternal debate about why Britain’s schools cannot do better, and why in the West Midlands for example the proportion of working age children educated to NVQ+3 level is way below the national average, goes on and on. But does anyone in Government seriously think the return of grammar schools is going to transform on any meaningful scale educational achievement in Birmingham and the West Midlands for children from disadvantaged backgrounds?

The Government has failed to explain why “the needs of the many and not the privileged few” can’t be met through improving existing comprehensive schools. Why is it necessary to remove ‘brighter’ children from one school and place them together in a different school?

Can it, in fact, ever be good for society to split communities apart at the age of 11 by devising an education system that separates out children based on perceived academic abilities and keeps them apart during crucial formative years?

As for social mobility, there will always be examples of working class children being given a leg up by a good grammar school education – I am one of them – but it is obvious that grammar schools are in the main populated by children from middle class families, and always will be.

There weren’t many kids from my council estate that made it to the local grammar school. Just me and one other boy managed to get there over a 16-year period. Social mobility on a grand scale it wasn’t.

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