No return to grammar schools

EDUCATION Secretary Justine Greening last week proposed that a new generation of grammar schools, with selective entrance based on academic tests at age 11, should be introduced. She claims this will increase social mobility and give gifted working class children an opportunity to get a really good education and to rise into the middle class.

This is wrong on so many levels. But Greening is proposing this on the basis of statistics which show that social mobility in Britain has more or less ground to a halt with very few opportunities for young working class people to get a good career — even though university entrance is now far wider than it was when the grammar school/secondary modern school system prevailed in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The root of the problem is the long-term underfunding of the whole state education system for many decades, and the rift between the Government and the teaching profession that dates back to the 1980s when the Tory government scrapped the teachers’ pay negotiation structure.

Then came the Sats tests and league tables — the back-to-basics education policies that stressed English and mathematics at the expense of all other subjects. History and geography were downgraded whilst art and music virtually disappeared. Secondary education became a hard, boring and stressful slog.

The league tables forced schools to compete, with extra funding going to schools with good results when it was those producing poor results that needed most help. Teachers were reluctant to enter children for exams unless they were sure that they would not merely pass but get a good result; “maybes” were discouraged from trying.

Wealthy parents strove to move into the catchment areas of “good” schools at the expense of good places for working class children. A two-tier rating of comprehensive schools emerged, with wealthy parents able to subsidise their children’s education whereas schools in working class areas had to scrape by on government funding.

That funding is now being dispensed via private sector bodies — companies, charities and religious groups — instead of through local authorities that are accountable to local residents.

Working class children are being educated in maths, computer literacy and low self-esteem because that is what modern employers want — people who can operate an electronic till, enter data on a computer and work in call centres.

It is little wonder that class mobility has ground to a halt and that working class children, however bright, stand little chance of a good education. Those who do make it to university are most likely to do business studies or similar courses — and they will be chained to big debts afterwards for a very long time.

Most of them know less of history, geography, music and literature than their grandparents who went to secondary modern schools.

The answer is not to reintroduce grammar schools. They took in very few working class children — perhaps one or two in every class. Their parents were faced with unexpected costs for expensive uniforms, sports kit, geometry kits and so on. The pupils’ self-confidence was destroyed and reconstructed to conform to middle class values and culture. They never did propel pupils into the elite — only the public schools could do that.

The crucial part of the 11-plus test was the intelligence test. Intelligence is very hard to define or test, and there are few definitions of it that are not class or culturally biased. There were millions of gifted working class children rejected by that system who were denied a chance to develop their talents.

Grammar school pupils were given a good education and groomed to be willing servants of the ruling class. But that is the point — they strengthened the class system. Taking a tiny handful out of the working class and turning them into part of the middle class did not benefit the working class one bit.

The importance of the change to comprehensive schools was that it kept the doors to development of a wide spectrum of talent open throughout the whole process of education and every child was encouraged.

There is no system better than a good comprehensive system that is well-funded, well-resourced and freed from the shackles of Sats tests and league tables; freed to offer a wide spectrum of subjects to all its children and to make education enjoyable and exciting for its own sake; freed to build self-confidence and the courage to question, to analyse and to think clearly. But that, of course, is exactly what they don’t want the working class to be able to do.