Neither Favour the Rich, Nor the Poor

Professor David Abulafia

Friday 16th September:  True justice depends on impartiality says Professor David Abulafia, who welcomes the green light for new grammar Schools

There is something inspiring in the title Grammar School. One would like to think that these schools offer a way to improve people’s grammar – teaching the difference between may and might, or lie and lay, just to cite the most common and outrageous errors that appear daily in the press. In fact, the grammar they were founded to teach was mainly Latin and Greek grammar, and the aim of those who founded these schools in name of King Henry VIII, King Edward VI and other monarchs was to bring free education in the humanities (as then understood) to provincial towns. It is often pointed out that all the ancient public schools began as free schools, some of them, such as Harrow, as local grammar schools. Since the abolition of the direct grant, a number of what are now flourishing independent schools have continued to call themselves, with pride, Grammar Schools, notably ‘The Grammar School at Leeds’.

Yet the term ‘grammar’ sets off fireworks. I understand that when the Conservative peers met Theresa May she very carefully did not use the phrase ‘Grammar Schools’, and rightly so; rather, she talked about diversity and different ways schools might choose their students. Some schools, after all, are already Sports Academies, or academies that lay an emphasis on business or technology. The government needs to continue on an existing path, introducing greater variety into the school system, in the wake of the inspired reforms of Michael Gove. Indeed, living in Cambridge I am inclined to say that I do not see what the fuss is about. Cambridge has two grammar schools, and I do not mean the former direct-grant schools, which now flourish in complete independence. These grammar schools have ugly names, which is a good way of concealing their real identity (much better if they were named after Newton, Darwin or Wordsworth); and one is on the site of the former Boys’ Grammar School and the other on that of the former Girls’ High School. At the age of sixteen Hills Road Sixth-Form College creams off those with good enough GCSE results; and others go to Long Road, where the admissions criteria are rather more modest, but do exist. Hills Road in particular attracts pupils from independent as well as state schools, some of whom look forward to being classified as ‘state school applicants’ when they apply to Russell Group universities, in the hope of benefiting from the outrageous (and I believe illegal) positive discrimination that leading universities practise in admissions.

Other cities, of course, have similar types of school. The question is when selection might take place, because, as we can see, it does so already. There is a real question about making a selection at the age of eleven, and the suggestion that it might take place around the same time as public schools, at thirteen, makes sense, though what one does with children between eleven and thirteen is a moot point: if children spend two years in a comprehensive school before being able to move, the argument that grammar schools, or whatever they come to be called, are creaming off the best will become louder, and no doubt there will be plenty of doctrinaire teachers who move heaven and earth to stop their brightest kids from even contemplating such a move, in the same way that they forbid sixth-formers from even dreaming of Oxford and Cambridge.

Then there is the question of favouring those from poorer backgrounds. Quite early in the Bible Moses gives the command: you shall not favour the rich in your judgments – neither shall you favour the poor. True justice depends on impartiality. Moreover, favouring those who may struggle over those who can handle more advanced academic work does no favour to those who are chosen that way. It has been happening even in Cambridge University, and it is disastrous, and deeply unfair. No thought is given to those turned away not because they are not good enough, but because they are thought to belong to the wrong social class. Where are we? Hoxha’s Albania? Ulbricht’s DDR? These may sound like far-fetched comparisons, but not if you read the novels of the great Albanian writer Ismail Kadare.

In fact, I have met extremely bright sixth-formers from the Harris Academies, children who live in the most deprived parts of London, who have a real will to succeed and are sure of a bright future precisely because they shine so brightly that no one will take into account one way or the other the fact that they are of Somali or Bengali or Bosnian origin. Talented teachers are on call to identify and encourage these children, so that if they want to read PPE at Oxford they will be told to go for that golden prize. More such teachers, free from the dogma that pervades the teaching profession, are surely required very urgently. Such children would also flourish in the academic environment of selective schools with a culture of academic success. At the moment many similar children are still stuck in poor, but (taking the nation as a whole) improving schools, perhaps locked into a system where there is not even streaming to separate the brightest from the weakest.

One of my great hopes is that the revival of selection will act as a spur to bright graduates, and draw them into the teaching profession. Far too many, dare I say it, go on to do Ph.D.s in the hope of pursuing an academic career, and they are welcome to do that if they insist; but once upon a time they would have gone to teach in schools, not universities, and Britain needs really talented teachers in the schools, people untainted by dated and pretentious educational ideologies, who know their subjects backwards and are keen to teach the new curricula – IGCSE, IB, Pre-U – that are so much more inspiring than GCSE and A-levels. We should remember that this very welcome reform is about good teachers as well as good pupils.

*David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History and Papthomas Professorial Fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. His recent publications include The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, UK and US edns., 2011 and he co-authored History in the Making: The new Curriculum, Right or Wrong? Politeia, 2013.