DEAR me but don’t the Tories excited about grammar schools. It’s as if some Conservatives have a hidden grammar school button. Press that sweet spot and they spin round in a whirl of gleeful agitation.
The mere mention of grammar schools sets these people off, and the prospect of a new one excites them more than the news that someone has just done a macabre twist on Jurassic Park and found a way to resurrect Margaret Thatcher (sorry, that was just a bad dream I had).
The Times reports today that the government has given the green light to the first selective school in half a century. David Cameron is said to have personally approved the new school in Kent.
A law passed under Tony Blair in 1998 bans new grammar or selective schools. This new school gets round the law by being an expansion of an existing school, Weald of Kent girls’ grammar school.
This story is making headlines today but it’s been rumbling away for a long time. When Michael Gove was education secretary he rejected an earlier bid for expansion, but now his successor, Nicky Morgan, has said that the new school can open in Sevenoaks.
Funnily enough, it was Thatcher who, as education secretary, closed many grammar schools in the Seventies. At the time all-ability comprehensive schools were thought to be the way ahead. And isn’t at the thing with education in this country? Each fresh tranche of endlessly interfering politicians believe they have the answer.
Firstly it’s grammar schools, as mostly created by the 1944 Education Act; then, no, comprehensives are the modern solution; then they’re not and academies are the thing. Despite all the tinkering, there is always another answer round the next corner.
The myth about grammar schools is that they aid social mobility and allow bright kids from poor background to succeed. This is mostly a delusion: grammar schools do produce good results, but only by selecting the brightest pupils at the age of 11: often the brightest middle-class kids. Do we really want to label children as successes and failures at such a young age? It’s seems a cruel way to sift our young people.
As a grammar school boy myself, I’ve never been able to see what all the fuss is about: just what is so great about grammar schools? But let’s turn to someone who really knows.
Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has said: “Grammar schools are stuffed full of middle-class kids. A tiny percentage are on free school meals: three per cent. This is nonsense. Anyone who thinks grammar schools are going to increase social mobility needs to look at those figures.”
There are a couple of ironies blowing around the feet of this matter. One: plenty of the people who think grammar schools are the answer went themselves to private schools. Two: David Cameron said in his conference speech that all schools would eventually be free from local authority control, yet here he is allowing a local education authority to open a new grammar school. Isn’t that having it both ways?
I am one of three brothers. Two of us went to the grammar school, the other had to cross town to the secondary modern. We all survived in the end, but that initial split set up difficulties.
What the grammar groupies tend to do is look at the children who succeed and scatter the confetti of selection over their young heads, while conveniently overlooking the long queue of children heading in a less desirable direction.
Grammar schools are a win-win thing to these people. What they forget is that you can’t have winners without creating losers too.
It is true that I went to school a very long time ago. True, too, that too often we take distant personal experience as a ruler to measure today’s situation.
But isn’t that just what the grammar groupies are doing? It seems to be a case of find your favourite myth, flog it half to death and hopscotch back into the past.
Sadly this won’t be the last of it. The few remaining scraps of grammar school DNA are being examined right now. Expect further resurrections.