Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Case for Grammar Schools

Grammar schools, say their opponents with weary condescension, do not improve the life chances of the poorest children. That is the evidence they assert.

But what evidence? How do you get evidence to prove this? How do you prove a negative?

The same people who make this entirely specious and illogical claim tell us that grammar schools are unfair because they tend to be monopolised by middle class parents with sharper elbows. But that is a consequence of rationing. If there were more grammar schools then there would be less need for elbowing, more opportunity for the best and brightest to get an education tailored to their needs rather than the current one size fits all policy that demonstrably does not work as well.

We know that our places at our best universities, in particular Oxbridge, tend to be disproportionately won by top fee playing schools. Yet where they are allowed to exist, grammar schools perform at least as well if not better than the top fee paying schools. So that is clear and unambiguous evidence that grammar schools do work and work extremely well. It is clear evidence that instead of preventing their establishment we should have a policy of creating new grammar schools around the country according to a formula per head of population.

And isn't it patronising nonsense to suggest, as some do, that grammar schools are the exclusive preserve of the middlc classes, although why this should be objectionable is a mystery. Are people to be punished now for being in the wrong occupations, earning too much and being good parents?

But working class people, insofar as this is a meaningful classification at all, are just as likely to be good parents who want the best for their kids as the so called middle classes. Where there is a problem is where parents don't give a damn about their kids or are too stupid or ignorant to seek out the best choices. But that is a problem that runs wider than the education system.

Besides, we live in the age of the internet. Information is more easily accessible than ever before. If selective schools become more widely available and schools encourage their brightest pupils to apply then we would solve the problem of low aspiration among some parents. Teachers are perfectly capable of spotting bright children who want to learn. So they are perfectly capable of encouraging them to apply to grammar school. If they have parents who don't give a damn then that is where the system should step in. Parents who don't give a damn about something so fundamental need intervention anyway, surely.

And by the way I have no interest to declare here. I did not attend either a fee paying school or a grammar school. I went to what was supposed to be one of the better comprehensive schools, although since we live in a rural area we had no choice. Everyone from the area went there. Once there we were setted according to ability. I tended to be in the top set for most subjects apart from Maths - not my strong point. In my day though we were also setted according to whether we would be sitting O Levels or CSEs. I scraped an O Level in Maths.

The school, looking back, was average. It was full of teachers most of whom were below par and fully signed up to the sixties levelling down, supposedly progressive teaching practices then in vogue. When I look back on the things we were not taught it makes me weep in quiet fury. When I look back on the things they taught that were plain wrong it astonishes me. In terms of other state schools it was distinctly average. But in terms of schools that send their pupils to top universities it was a bad school. Occasionally, very occasionally, some cream emerged from this morass of mediocrity. But if some did it was a fluke.

Nevertheless I managed eventually, and no thanks to my school, to win a place at one of the country's top universities: the LSE. I did so as a mature student having taken my A Levels at a night school part time whilst working full time. Once there I was surrounded by students who had attended fee paying schools and of course foreign students paying top dollar. Those of us from a comprehensive background were few and far between. It actually gave one a feeling of achievement to be there, although the difference was telling, especially when it came to exam time. Exam technique came naturally to the alumni of fee paying schools. They had had it drilled into them.

And that is why grammar schools are so necessary. Selection is, or ought to be, a given in education. We are all born with different abilities. The current levelling down approach is failing thousands of students every year and handing an unfair advantage to a privileged few who have either got lucky or have gamed the system. The solution, as with all things, is not to ration top quality education it is to create more opportunities for all.

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