There is no quicker way to turn a dinner table conversation into a blazing row than to bring up the topic of schools. Wine glasses get knocked over and neighbourhood friendships rupture. I even remember the peace of a family outing to an ice rink in north London being pierced by a screeching scuffle between a leading liberal-left journalist and an equally well known comprehensive school campaigner over where a child was going to be educated.
Reasoned discussion of the future educational needs of individual children and what might benefit the nation as whole quickly flare into what “Jake”, my old prep school Latin master, would bemoan as ad hominem and tu quoque arguments.
Even if it was decades ago, our own upbringing makes us feel that we are all experts on education and our aspirations for our own children fuel the vehemence with which we express our opinions.
The violent tone of Anthony Crosland’s famous edict against grammar schools was typical of spats over education. Probably well into his second bottle of red, the public school and Oxford-educated former paratrooper blustered: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every last f****** grammar school.”
Well, Tony old boy, you failed. More than 1,000 selective state schools have gone but today about 5% of school-age children, around 141,000 pupils, still go to selective state grammar schools in England. Now the first new one is being built since Crosland’s fatwa 50 years ago. Officially an annexe of Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge, the new site is in Sevenoaks nearly 10 miles away and will have places for 450 girls.
The local Tory MP, Michael Fallon, better known as the defence secretary, is delighted and so are more than 100 Tory MPs, including the backbenchers’ chairman Graham Brady. More applications for grammar “annexes” are in the pipeline.
Grammar schools persist, mainly in Tory parts of the country where they please voters. According to a poll commissioned from ComRes by the National Grammar School Association, 51% of adults back grammar schools, 48% think they are good for social mobility and only 10% oppose them. This means it was a no-brainer for the ambitious education secretary, Nicky Morgan, to let the Weald school through.
In their excitement the Tories should not overlook her insistence that the decision is pragmatic and does not mark a change of policy. She knows that parents may be disappointed by what grammar school does for their little darlings and that grammars are unlikely be an answer to the problem of social mobility.
The politics of grammar schools are simple. Conservatives like them and Labour and other so-called progressive parties don’t. Opponents consider the 11-plus exam to be damaging to individuals who take it, whether they pass or fail, and socially divisive.
The exception proving the partisan rule is that it was a New Labour education secretary, David “read my lips, no selection” Blunkett, who allowed the last grammar schools to survive as long as interested parents wanted them. It is this loophole that has made the extension possible.
The socialist dream of every child going to the local school and those schools being equally excellent has not been fulfilled. Instead Tony Blair’s government encouraged diversity to break the stranglehold of what Alastair Campbell dubbed “bog standard comprehensives”. As a result, historic legacy and haphazard initiatives have bequeathed a mixture of comprehensives, grammars, faith schools, beacon schools, academies, free schools and technical colleges and that’s just in the state sector. More children attend private schools than grammars.
Of course, most parents get to choose only from a small selection of this menu. The new grammar school will increase the options for some girls around Sevenoaks, provided they pass the exam and provided they get a place. A quarter of grammar school places are awarded to children from outside the local authority area. The school in Sevenoaks could be open to commuters from south London.
Grammar school advocates venerate “the golden generation” of humble origins who left school in the 1950s and 1960s and went on to scale the heights of society. But, as the socialist Lord Young warned, this insurgency installed a new elite or meritocracy over the heads of the majority. Worse, the one thing that his conservative son, the free-school founder Toby Young, has in common with left-wing educationalists is the analysis that the triumph of this generation was more to do with new postwar job opportunities than where they went to school.
Once introduced to each other, the old and new elites interbred and then consolidated their children’s position by gaming the system — hiring tutors and buying their way into catchment areas of the best comprehensives. This goes on all the way into the ivory towers. A one-time girlfriend of Blair is much valued in his circle as an Oxbridge coach.
I am a little familiar with education in Kent because I am a governor of Sevenoaks School, which is private, fee-paying and a champion of the international baccalaureate. In Kent, grammar school pupils tend to be from relatively affluent backgrounds and do relatively well in exams; comprehensive school children are poorer and do worse than average. The new grammar won’t change this.
By contrast Kent’s best known private schools (such as Tonbridge; King’s School, Canterbury; Benenden; Sevenoaks) and Skinners’, one of its leading grammars, are each sponsoring an academy comprehensive school. They have set up a network to bring on talented pupils through mentoring and extra classes. This may reach children who would otherwise be overlooked
Kenneth Baker, the former Tory minister who will be remembered as one of our great educational reformers, is taking another approach with his university technology colleges. Taking students from the age of 14, Baker’s colleges are delivering vocational education around the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), not forgetting Baker’s own passion for English.
A Tory politician will tell you that existing grammars are popular with voters, a Tory educationalist would probably agree that new ones will be a distraction. The government is clear that the new Weald of Kent is a special case, not a precedent. Either way, Britain’s education system is slowly getting better because it is increasingly varied and interlinked. One small retro annexe is not worth spilling wine over.