Britain’s education ministers have launched class war on the grammar schools. Until now their ‘crime’ has been to select pupils on academic grounds, admitting only the brighter children who pass the entrance at 11 plus. Now the claim has been made that grammar schools also favour the well off – those whose parents pay for extra cramming by private tutors.
David Laws, the Lib Dem education minister, is demanding that a higher proportion of poorer children, those eligible for free school meals, should be admitted to the grammar schools. Moreover, the exams should be changed to make them less easy to prepare for.
This latest round of class war is as foolish as it is unwelcome.
Foolish because ministers, since the 1960s, in their death wish for anything in English education with a whiff of academic elitism, have destroyed not only the schools themselves, but the intellectual aspiration and love of learning, the desire to excel and succeed, the societal and individual ‘good’ which only a good education for all can bring. The grammar schools gave children from every social background the opportunity of a good education and opened the gates to the finest universities in the world. They are now the last generation so ‘privileged’ thanks to the vendetta waged against grammar schools by governments, the teachers’ unions and the armies of official advisers, inspectors, bureaucrats and quangos for which England’s education system – and the benighted taxpayer – have paid a high price.
Michael Gove, Law’s boss, an Education Secretary whose dedication to reversing the decline of England’s education standards has marked him out amongst the post-war holders of his office, agrees with his junior minister. It’s difficult to say whether this is because of ‘Coalition politics’, or it’s a facet of putting much of the Tory past behind, or simply because he has enough battles already on his hands – the education department and its myriad of publicly-funded education allies watch and wait the opportunity to put the knife in real change, fashioning the rules wherever they can, to suit their purpose. Mr Gove, and even Law’s able predecessor, Nick Gibb whose job was said to be demanded by the Lib Dems for Laws, warned enthusiasts for more grammars that this door was one which the Coalition would not unlock.
Such short-sightedness is not just foolish, it is unwelcome to the parents in this country for whom the only option is the maintained, mainly comprehensive entry, school. Indeed, its consequences for the wider economy cannot be countered by any amount of pro-growth policy. If the Coalition is in earnest about growth, it should take account of the world’s economic power houses, where success begins at school, and the highest standards are set by elite academic schools. They act as the leaven to raise standards across the system, which in turn attracts the most able and educated candidates into the teaching profession.
And nearer home, across the channel, Germany, Switzerland and France still have selective systems. There, the question is not whether to select, but at what stage and how. In Germany and German cantons of Switzerland, selection begins at 12, in France at 16. In all three countries a high premium is put on teaching the non-academic stream to the highest standards in all the subjects of the curriculum. Politeia’s Comparing Standards: Academic and Vocational revealed that the mathematics standards demanded of pupils in the German ‘Hochschulen’ (non-grammar school tier) was far higher than that we expect of our best pupils who take A level maths.
Mr Gove should think again. Instead of forcing grammar schools to take children on the basis of social background, and bringing the mighty tank of state to bear on the gallant rowing boats making their way through hostile waters, the Conservatives should go full circle – Academies, free schools faith schools and yes, grammar schools, the one consistently high academic achiever in the maintained system since the 1960s.
*Dr Sheila Lawlor is the Director of Politeia. She is the Editor and Contributor of Politeia’s Comparing Standards: Academic and Vocational, 16-19 Years Old (2002).