Giles Marshall 9.30am
The Labour Party’s opposition to grammar schools has always bemused me a little, particularly in more recent years. After all, at a time of reducing social mobility there are few better engines for poor, aspirational students than selective schools. Meanwhile, the egalitarian argument behind the Labour Party’s comprehensive school thinking was one of the first cracks to appear in the socialist wall years ago. I should declare my interest here – I teach, and have done throughout my teaching career, in a state grammar school. But let me instead look to an educationalist and historian of considerable eminence to best express a scathing view of the decline of the grammars. The liberal minded historian Tony Judt endorsed an idea of education that could be held with integrity by anyone on the left. In an essay in the New York Review of Books, he wrote:
For forty years, British education has been subjected to a catastrophic sequence of “reforms” aimed at curbing its elitist inheritance and institutionalizing “equality.” The havoc wrought in higher education was well summarized by Anthony Grafton in this magazine, but the worst damage has been at the secondary level. Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity.
The result, predicted from the outset, was that the selective private schools (“public schools”) have flourished. Desperate parents pay substantial fees to exempt their children from dysfunctional state schools; universities are under inordinate pressure to admit underqualified candidates from the latter and have lowered their admissions standards accordingly; each new government has instituted reforms aimed at compensating for the failed “initiatives” of their predecessors.
Universities are elitist: they are about selecting the most able cohort of a generation and educating them to their ability—breaking open the elite and making it consistently anew. Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy.
When David Willetts announced, in Opposition, that the Conservatives were no longer going to endorse selective education, he was offering a golden opportunity for radical minded politicians on the left to take the grammar school stick and use it to beat the public schools with. If there was one route to attacking the privilege of buying your good academic education over earning it through pure merit, it was the grammar schools, and it would have thrown the Conservatives into chaos.
Happily, perhaps, for us the pendulum is swinging back. While Ed Balls ensures that the Labour Party remains wedded to the unhelpful slogans of educational envy, Schools Minister Nick Gibb has provided some resurgent hope for those who believe the grammars offer one of the best ways to reduce the aspiration gap in the UK. In a speech yesterday – to, who else but the National Grammar Schools Association – he has not only allowed that existing grammar schools will be allowed to expand their intakes, but has also managed to set out once again exactly why they remain a valuable fixture in the education firmament. If Gibb is indeed bringing the Tory high command back round to an acceptance of grammar schools, he will not only be rescuing a popular policy amongst grassroots Conservatives, but also offering real hope to the multitude of students from poorer backgrounds who would really benefit from a meritorious, selective education. This is absolutely a One Nation policy, and we should welcome it wholeheartedly. As for Labour – they’ve missed a trick….again.