In 1965, the Labour Education Secretary, Anthony Crosland, is rumoured to have said ‘If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every f***ing grammar school in England’. Whether Crosland actually said this is irrelevant, his intent was undeniable. That year, Harold Wilson’s government issued the Circular 10/65, which ‘requested’ that every school of the old Tripartite System be converted into a comprehensive school. In doing this, Crosland all but destroyed the only part of the Tripartite System that worked. Grammar schools gave intelligent boys and girls from less well-off backgrounds the chance to obtain an education that they would not otherwise have had.
Crosland’s act of immense malice has never been reversed, and now, only 163 grammar schools remain. The (privately educated) Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, did his best to ensure that it would never be reversed when, in 1998, he passed a law banning the creation of new grammar schools. Since then, no major party has made any real attempt to undo the immeasurable damage.
Grammar schools enable bright children from ordinary backgrounds to obtain with ability what children from wealthy backgrounds obtain with wealth. Back in the 1960s, when there were still over 1200 grammar schools, and 25% of all secondary-school pupils attended one, 65% of students attending grammar schools were from working class backgrounds (a higher figure than you’d be likely to find at any good comprehe
nsive nowadays), and 57% of Oxbridge entrants came from academically selective schools. Had the grammar schools not been destroyed, this figure may have risen further. Now, independent schools - which comprise 7% of total schools in this country – are utterly dominant at top universities and the most prestigious professions. State schools lag behind. Despite this, in 2006, over half of the total A* and A grades in core subjects at ‘A Level’ were produced by grammar schools. More than 3000 comprehensives failed to exceed this, despite outnumbering grammar schools eighteen to one.
The current ‘comprehensive’ education system is also something of a misnomer. It is true that there are very good comprehensives in this country; it is also true that there are some utterly terrible ones. The type of comprehensive a child attends depends on whether that child’s parents can afford to move into a neighbourhood that falls within the catchment of a good comprehensive. The highest-achieving comprehensives in this country admit a lower proportion of children from poor backgrounds than grammar schools. Subsequently, what we have in the comprehensive system is selection by wealth. The 163 remaining grammar schools are besieged by wealthy parents who can afford to change location. However, if there was a good grammar school in every town and several in every city, there would be enough places available that geographical location would not matter – everyone would be within reasonable distance of a selective school regardless of how wealthy their parents were.
‘What about those who don’t get in?’ is something that the enemies of grammar schools often say. Indeed, the 11+ is flawed, but just because the means for selection is flawed, it doesn’t mean that selection itself doesn’t work. The concern many opponents of grammar schools show for those who don’t go to them also reveals a truth about comprehensives – that children attending them are much less likely to receive a good education. Moreover, what pity has there been for the thousands of pupils who might have gone to grammar schools and excelled, but instead ended up in comprehensives and had their potential wasted? People are different, and respond well to different types of education; grammar schools create the kind of environment in which bright students can flourish. The one-size-fits-all philosophy of comprehensive education does not work, and if a national system of selection were introduced, not only would bright children receive a more tailored education at grammar schools, but less able children could be given more attention and help in their own schools. The confidence of low-achieving children can be damaged by placing them alongside higher-achieving students; similarly, it’s invariably counter-productive for bright children to be placed in classes in which they are held back by those less able than themselves.
Labour (many years ago) used to be in favour of grammar schools – this was because they knew that they gave working class children a chance to utilise their intelligence to improve their lives. Now, the British liberal left stands in the way of grammar schools. They argue that because they only benefit some people, nobody should have access to them. So, instead of doing the difficult and righteous thing – improving the failing comprehensives, the enemies of grammar schools would sooner destroy the successful grammar schools and bring the top down rather than drag the bottom up. To them, outright equality is more important than outright achievement.
Fundamentally, grammar schools work – they do what education is meant to do, and teach students regardless of wealth, class and religion. They value tradition, discipline and achievement, subsequently, the few that remain still prove to be an effective way for less wealthy students to achieve social mobility through hard work and effort, and it’s about time that we brought them back so that more students could get the education they truly need and deserve.