Oliver writes in his personal capacity at https://norgroveblog.com
I won’t return to this blog for at least another week as I am setting off on holiday to Zante early tomorrow morning, so I wanted to contribute before I go on a subject that I have addressed here fairly recently. A few weeks ago, when the grammar school debate had begun to stir up once again, I blogged about their potential reintroduction, and also highlighted some support for vouchers to compliment selection within education. That piece can be read here:https://norgroveblog.com/2016/08/11/weighing-in-on-the-grammar-school-debate/
Only one thing comforts me as I sit pondering over whether our allegedly conservative government is serious about restoring the many hundreds of perfectly efficient grammar schools that were wrongly abolished or phased out after the 1960s: that Britain’s new Prime Minister benefitted from grammar school education. Mrs May, herself from rather more modest beginnings than so many of her fellow parliamentarians, was spring boarded onto St Hugh’s College at the University of Oxford after a successful spell at Holton Park Girls’ Grammar School.
She is, therefore, entirely familiar with the wonders of selection within education, of which there are many kinds. Some seem to me to make more sense than others. Selection by postcode or academic merit, for instance, are far more necessary within an education system than selection based upon the religious background or gender of potential pupils. I am confident that Theresa May hasn’t forgotten the tremendous opportunity afforded to her when she was a 13 year old girl, and will remember this when it comes to deciding upon whether or how to reintroduce academically selective education.
As things stand, we have a tiny, besieged crop of grammar schools in Britain, both unrepresentative of what a national system could offer (as research by John Marks in Northern Ireland, 2000 has suggested:https://www.cps.org.uk/files/reports/original/111028112306-BetrayedGenerations.pdf) and responsible for only a tiny proportion of educational selection. Left-wing egalitarians often argue that it isn’t morally right to select and divide children up at age 11, but many of them seem perfectly at ease with other, more prominent types of selection (often unnecessary and unjustified in their continued existence).
The education secretary, Justine Greening, told MPs in the House of Commons that the government would be taking a “pragmatic” approach to education in the current parliament. In my view, the pragmatic choice is to introduce as much selection as possible. Not just selection enacted by schools, but also by parents in the form of vouchers. Ms Greening explained that the government would not be ‘returning to the past’ (a phrase a conservative should seldom use derogatively) and implementing a ‘very broad-based’ system, and not a ‘binary’ one.
I think Justine misses the point about both selection and grammar schools. They work best on a widespread basis, not on an erratic, spotty one. If the government wants a return to selective success, it must abandon its policy ensuring that areas which do not want grammar schools are forced to have them against their better wishes. How long before we find out that poorer areas, with more stifling social mobility are the kind of areas most hostile to academically-selective education?
Before 1965 (this document will be especially useful to some readers: file:///C:/Users/Oliver/Downloads/SN01398.pdf), there were around 1,300 grammar schools stretched right across the United Kingdom. We must remember for a moment that in the mid-1960s, the population was much smaller and less diverse. The national system worked so well primarily because it better equipped brighter students with the means to achieve, or go on to university. It was (and remains today) particularly beneficial for the poorest, brighter children in our society to have access to a more extensive curriculum and more rigorous exams. It is they who are in most need of a socially mobile landscape, after all.
It is for this reason, and indeed to bolster her conservative credentials, that Theresa May must follow through with her pledge to reintroduce more selection to Britain’s education system. Since education in our country is already littered with selection (the hypocrisy over this issue is really quite staggering), it cannot conceivably make sense for academic merit to account for such a tiny proportion of it. That is, of course, unless you are in favour of continued private school dominance, which I suspect many of our politicians secretly are.
It could well be why, more than 50 years ago, British politicians turned their backs on the very system which helped them to get to the top and consigned many millions of children there after to the mediocrity of comprehensive education.