Monday, 26 September 2016

What the Experts Say


So what did we learn last week? Well most importantly never invite a bunch of lefties to a party you might be thinking of holding. Chances are that they will invite all of their friends too, hold a democratic discussion followed by a vote and then have you thrown out of your own home. By the time this happens they will have convinced themselves that not only are they entitled to take over your home and have you thrown out of it, but that they will be morally justified in doing so because of the purity of their intentions and because their leader always mouths his vacuous platitudes in such a lovely soft voice. Even when he's refusing to condemn people for being racist or aggressive or issuing death threats. What a lovely man.

We also discovered last week that experts can be remarkably inexpert and just as capable as the rest of us of  bias, prejudice, groupthink and cognitive dissonance. Britain is not in recession and seems to be getting by very well since we voted to leave the EU. This was not supposed to happen. The experts told us. They were remarkably unanimous about this. The British people paid little attention to them, which is fortunate, since the experts seemed to have little idea what they were talking about.

But this sparks an interesting question. What other issues could experts be wrong about?

Take education and in particular grammar schools. The experts are remarkably unanimous about this too. Grammar schools are not good, they assure us, at promoting social mobility. For proof of this they produce the, to my inexpert mind, blunt instrument of the free school meals metric. This shows that the number of pupils in receipt of free school meals is not as high in grammar schools as in local comprehensive schools and thus there must be a problem with social mobility.

There are so many problems with this as a measure it is hard to know where to begin. First there are bound to be more pupils in receipt of free school meals at a comprehensive school. It goes with the territory since comprehensive schools are, well, comprehensive and thus take pupils from all sections of society. A selective school is less comprehensive and thus the numbers will inevitably be lower. Secondly grammar schools are few and far between these days and tend to be in leafier areas and thus will tend to be more middle class. And anyway, free school meals are not the sole determinant of someone's deserving an excellent education. Are we to design an education system that seeks to cater to one narrow part of society to the exclusion of all others?

Grammar schools are generally good at educating the people who are lucky enough to get into them. The objection of those who are opposed to them is that this means that those who do not get into them are somehow disadvantaged. But this is only the case if you accept that this means we would have to return to a system like that we left behind 50 years ago: of grammar schools and secondary moderns. Nobody is advocating any such thing. If grammar schools are good at educating people and are oversubscribed then that is a case for creating more of them, not rationing them because of ideological objections.

It is simply not the case that a modern education system has to be as divisive and unfair as this is painted. We should be designing a system that can be tailored to the needs of each student. Where they are very academic then a grammar school can be highly advantageous. But this is not to write pupils off at the age of 11. Surely it is not beyond the wit of modern oh so sophisticated experts to come up with a way of testing pupils, spotting potential by means of something better than the old 11 plus and of spotting late developers along the way. Surely if educators are as clever and sophisticated as they claim to be then they should be able to create a range of schools that give kids opportunities that work for everyone, giving parents proper choice. Grammar schools would just be one part of a range of schooling for people of all abilities and interests. You could have stage schools, schools dedicated to sports, to science, to maths.

Chauncey scored his only real victory on this subject at PMQs before the recess. Clearly Theresa May, a grammar school alumni herself, had not properly marshalled the arguments. But they are not hard to dream up. Nobody is proposing a return to the bad old days of the 11 plus and a life of factory fodder failure for those who are rejected at the tender age of 11.  The world has moved on. Back in those days kids were still leaving school at 14. Now we are in an age of schooling to 18 and of a lifetime of learning for all. Grammar schools would be a valued and valuable part of that mix and one that demonstrably lifts people of ability into careers that they would not have been able to dream of otherwise. The best grammar schools send as high a proportion of their pupils to Oxbridge and our top universities as the top fee paying schools. This is an example of excellence in the public sector. It is something to be proud of, not to condemn.

As can often be the case the loudest critics of the grammar school system are those who either benefited from such schools themselves or who went to fee paying schools. Chauncey himself is one example, Diane Abbott of course not to mention Seumas Milne, Chauncey's egregious chief of strategy. The argument against grammar schools do not stack up. They are self serving and typical of the kind of bovine, blinkered, prejudiced attitude we will see coming from Chauncey's Labour in the coming months and years. The evidence is there for all to see that grammar schools work. If they are not the engine of social mobility that we would like them to be then build more of them, put one in every town. Quite apart from anything else grammar school pupils often end up as MPs, even Labour MPs. It's a party that is clearly desperate for new talent. One day some of them might even be working class.

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