Thursday, May 27, 2010

Grammar schools and the left

Tim Luckhurst had an article on Comment is Free yesterday arguing that:

for radicals who cherish equality of opportunity, excellence and social mobility, a glorious opportunity now presents itself. The flaw in Michael Gove's plans for free schools is that they exclude the creation of new grammar schools.

The left has chosen to ignore the benefits of academic selection; Conservatives have had injustice imposed upon them by a leader whose sensitivity about Eton renders him a poor judge of what working families really value.

Controversial stuff, but I think he has a point. And the comments on the post are worth reading too.

Certainly, we should not be surprised that in a country where education is divided between a relentlessly meritocratic private sector and a public sector where egalitarianism is the chief virtue, it is the products of the former who dominate our national life.

QI-style note to commenters: Anyone using the phrase "back to the 1950s" will be docked 10 points.


Alix said...

I've no theological objection to grammar schools, but it strikes me there is a particular obstacle to resurrecting them successfully, which is the difference between the property market then and now. I don't have figures, but my impression is that the market now is a lot more febrile and extreme, much more likely to move and respond to things like schools, because people actually are crazy/desperate enough to disrupt their lives for a catchment area. I suppose this is because fifty years ago people were, on the whole, less inclined to see their children's needs as being at the centre of the universe than we are now.

And average property prices in general are that many more average income multiples out of reach now than they were then. I'm sure there was always a slight booster effect on prices from the presence of a grammar school, but the starting position was less extreme. It's not difficult to see how catchment areas now *could* become entirely closed off to large chunks of the population. So I'm not sure we could go, er, back to the 1950s, in terms of recreating the social impact of grammar schools. I'm not sure the property market would let us.

Tristan said...

Perhaps the left can champion diversity in education?

The problem I see with Grammar Schools is that too many people saw not going to a Grammar School as being a failure of the child, condemming them to a life of drudgery (a bit like the common view of university education today).

The sooner we realise that all children are different (any teacher should be able to tell you that) the better.

Frank H Little said...

I have a theological objection to Secondary Moderns.

Matthew Huntbach said...

In those places which still have the grammar/secondary modern school divide, such as the administrative county of Kent, there does not seem to be any more excellence or social mobility than anywhere else. I do not think the existence or non-existence of grammar schools is the issue.

I find that many of those arguing against comprehensives actually went to private schools and their view on what happens in comprehensives is based more on prejudice and ignorance than on fact. For example, there is often the assumption that everyone is taught together in comprehensives, whereas reality is that setting or streaming is now almost universal.

As a university lecturer, I do have to take in the products of our comprehensives, they form the bulk of the students I teach. And, yes, they are mostly very bad, poor in basic logic and literacy. So I do know what I am talking about.

The problem, however, lies elsewhere. Unfortunately, some of it is things which it would make liberals very unhappy to have to face up to. For example, that mostly the kids are clueless and don't know what's good for them, so giving them choices at that age and letting them make the wrong ones is cruel and damaging to them, even though it's what we said should be done when we were hairy Young Liberals.

Simon Titley said...

Only when grammar school supporters are prepared to march down the street waving banners and chanting for the return of secondary moderns will I take their arguments seriously.

Jonathan said...

Matthew: I assure you I went to a comprehensive myself. In fact I received free school dinners, so if you want to play "prolier than thou"...

Simon: That's fine, but then don't complain when the world is taken over by privately educated mediocrities.

Richard Gadsden said...

The problem I have with a simplistic restoration of the old-style grammar schools system is that there weren't enough of them. To take St. Helens as an example, we had seven Secondary Moderns, one Secondary Technical and one Grammar. If 50% or so of 18 year olds will go to University, and Grammars are the intended route to University, then we need to get 75% or so of 11-year olds to Grammar schools.

My proposal is that St Helens would have one Secondary Modern, one Secondary Technical and six Grammar schools - and that the two Secondaries would get the pupil premium of the full £1000 for every pupil.

If the SM's concentration on vocational skills for non-academic pupils was real, then I'd be very much in favour of a Secondary Modern. I've seen how badly the bottom stream of a Comprehensive is treated (St Helens went Comp three or four years before I moved up from primary to secondary) and I'd be interested in a school that just had that bottom stream in it.

Joe Otten said...

I notice nobody is calling for universities not to be academically selective.

Alix said...

Joe, George Monbiot called the other day for a variation on that. He suggested Oxbridge places should automatically be filled by the top three people (for example) in each school. That was a fun comment thread.

Matthew Huntbach said...

Jonathan, I could probably win any prolier-than-thou competition going, but that's not my point.

My own feeling on this issue is that the "grammar schools" campaign is just yet another way in which what is truly damaging the chances of poor people in this country get ignored.

I am happy to join in with attacks on the state educational establishment. This is something I thought I might be able to do when I was a councillor, but after I got elected I found that role gave me no say at all in what went on in Borough schools. If I did have a chance the first thing I'd do is throw out all the computers. And the second is introduce teaching formal grammar at an early age. But none of that has anything to do with whether it is good or bad to have separate schools selected on academic ability at the age of 11.

If your issue is about "a public sector where egalitarianism is the chief virtue", then that is another thing. Your complaint seems to be about some of the attitudes you suppose must exist in comprehensive school rather than about the mere idea that having a test at the age of 11 and separating out pupils to go to entrirely different schools on that basis is a good thing.

My own feeling is that actually this country does pretty well with the bright chldren, those who wouls go to grammar schools if we had them. The problem is what it does with those lower down. If discussion on education were to shift that way rather than being obsessed with a very few at the top, we might get somewhere.