Grammar schools were designed to be great engines of social mobility; a place where, irrespective of your background, what truly mattered was your dedication, intelligence, and willingness to learn. Discounting familial wealth in favour of academic ability is, I believe, the correct way to conduct education, and the closure of our nation’s grammars by successive post-war governments represents one of the greatest injustices inflicted on our country’s children.
To the internationals among us, or to those who simply don’t know, grammar schools are state secondary schools that select students on the basis of their ability. Modern grammars were brought into being by the 1944 Education Act, with students having to pass the Eleven Plus (or, in my grammar’s case, the school’s own entrance exam) in order to win a place.
I am not going to write that our rump of remaining grammars are God’s gift to education, but what I will argue is that, before Tony Crosland and Margaret Thatcher exterminated them, grammar schools were, quite simply, truly excellent schools that delivered first-class education and actively worked to dismantle Britain’s class-ridden society.
In 1954, 64.6 per cent of grammar school students were from working-class families, and Frank Musgrove (in his School and the Social Order) observed that, in grammar schools, there was no difference between the ability of working-class pupils and children who belonged to the professional classes to gain two good A-levels.
Further, grammars did wonders for getting children into our best universities. In 1938/39, 24 per cent of entrants to Oxford were educated by the state. By the late 1950s, after some years of grammars being publicly available, this figure had increased rapidly to 43 per cent. Indeed, the success of grammars was so acute that Anthony Sampson, who wrote Anatomy of Britain, argued that if the private education sector was to survive in the new era they would have to emulate grammar schools.
Children lower down the social ladder had access to grammars, did well at them, and went on to do well later in life. There is no question that grammar schools and selective education, when not marginalised to less than 1 per cent of Local Education Authorities, help disadvantaged children realise their potential at school.
We should compare this to the state of modern comprehensives, which are now our country’s most common type of school. Our infallible liberal politicians thought grammars were leaving children behind and deemed them unfair, and so offered plenty of incentive for them to convert to comprehensives. Comps differ from grammars in that the only criterion for selection is proximity to the school itself, treating children “fairly” and ostensibly leaving us with a more equal education system. But, far from fostering equality and helping working-class children to get a good education, comps have left us with a state education system that entrenches class division and selects students on the basis of their wealth.
As soon as a comp gets recognised as a good school, middle-class families rush to buy houses in the catchment area, pushing up house prices and forcing lower-income families out. There is clear evidence of this— the 500 top performing comprehensives have half as many children on Free School Meals (FSMs) as the national average, and 43 per cent of children at “outstanding” schools come from the top 20 per cent of society. The fact of the matter is that “good” comprehensives are dominated by the children of the wealthy; they are pseudo private schools, with parents paying mortgages instead of fees.
Comps, in their well-meaning pursuit of equality, have simply cemented societal division, and have left Britain’s schools more divided by class than they were 50 years ago, when “divisive” grammars still had some presence in the UK. The Sutton Trust’s 2010 study admits this, conceding that, “The 2,679 state comprehensive schools in England are highly socially segregated.” Not only is this grossly unfair, it represents a gargantuan waste of our national talent.
Arguments against the reintroduction of selective education are tired and predictable.
Many are unhappy about separating children by ability, but this is common practice within comprehensives themselves (which “stream” their students) and indeed in other developed countries. Others point to the army of private tutors that deal in entrance exam preparation as evidence of the inequity of grammar schools, but this would cease to be an issue if there were more than 164 catering for the whole of England.
I think that Eric James, a passionate believer in meritocracy and former High Master of Manchester Grammar School, put it well when he said that, “If I were a high Tory instead of a Fabian Socialist, a high Tory who scarcely exists even in cartoons, one who truly believed in privilege and keeping the lower orders down, one of the first things I would do would be to close the grammar schools.”
For far too long we have languished under an ineffective and extremely class-ridden state education system that fails our children and sells our country short.
If we phased out comprehensives, committed to selective education, and had a grammar school in every town, we could open up a new and revolutionary chapter in British education. Private education in Britain is envied the world over — grammar schools could be the key to elevating our state education to the same level.