Backing the Grammars

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.

He concluded:

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.

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Social Mobility - there is still much to do

 Alexander Pannett 9.10am

 The launch of the Social Mobility Strategy yesterday sets out the Coalition’s long term strategy to encourage social mobility in the UK.  It is a vital goal and there is clearly much to be done in ensuring those with talent are not denied opportunities and advancement due to their background.  However, the report has raised some debate as to why social mobility has diminished in recent years, with David Davis claiming that the end of the grammar school system did more to hold back social mobility than any other factor.  David Willets, the Universities Minister, has even attacked feminism for holding back working class men.  Though it is not particularly clear how a movement that dramatically opened up education and employment opportunities for 50% of the population can be seen as a force of social immobility.

The UK has certainly many challenges to overcome to improve the opportunities of those born in the most disadvantaged socio-economic sections of society.  According to the Coalition’s new strategy, 25% of children from poor backgrounds fail to meet the expected attainment level at the end of primary school, compared to 3% from affluent backgrounds.  Only 7% of the population attend independent schools, but the privately educated account for more than half of the top level of most professions, including 70% of high court judges, 54% of top journalists and 54% of chief executive officers of FTSE 100 companies.  These are damning statistics.

David Davis makes a good point that action over internships, “blind” application forms and state-school quotas for university will not make much dent into the woeful representation of the socially disadvantaged in the higher strands of employment.  But it is not clear that a return to grammar schools will herald a new age of social mobility.  Selection at the age of 11 can weed out many talented individuals.  But to create a social dichotomy between the academic and non-academic at such a young age seems a crude and arbitrary process.  Selection is vital in education but it must be a constant feature to account for different rates of development.  Social mobility must be about granting opportunities throughout a child’s development into an adult.

Social mobility must also be about quality as well as quantity in opportunities.  It must ensure that disadvantaged students have the training to be able to compete against their international peers in the global marketplace. The huge numbers of graduates arising from China and India means that jobs will become even more competitive.  The government must ensure that what students are taught is relevant and imbues them with skills that are needed for the 21st Century.  The Coalition’s Free School reforms are a start in the right direction.  Allowing more flexibility in the curriculum ensures schools can adapt to meet the changing demands of an increasingly specialised world.  There is much more that needs to be done but it is admirable that, in the midst of terrible economic conditions, the Coalition is focused on delivering progressive reforms.

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