The Government’s commitment to allow existing grammar schools to expand, and to allow new grammar schools to be opened where the is demand, is hugely welcome. However, if the policy is to succeed the Government will need to answer two fundamental questions: firstly, how to deal with the issue of selection, and secondly, how to ensure that the schools for those who do not go to the grammar schools provide a first class education suitable to the needs of the non-grammar school pupils.
Grammar schools were the great drivers of social mobility in the middle of the 20th century. State school admissions to Oxford and Cambridge peaked in the 1960s and the universities did not have to fall over themselves, as they do today, in devising schemes to attract state school applicants. Grammar schools raised their pupils’ expectations of themselves and delivered the teaching necessary to allow children from modest backgrounds to compete on level terms with the products of the great public schools.
This then fed into the leading positions in government, commerce and the law. No public school product was Prime Minister from 1964 to 1997. Most of the Wilson and Thatcher Cabinets were former grammar school products who had made their way from there to the best universities. The British education system had led to a true meritocracy.
However there were two major flaws in the system. The first was the 11 plus exam. Those who failed the exam were branded as failures from an early age, and recovery from that failure was almost impossible as it was extremely difficult for someone who had failed that exam to show, by increased effort at a secondary modern, that the failure was a blip. Very few pupils moved from secondary moderns to grammar schools. The stigma of failure, once applied, was difficult to remove.
Also , it can be asked whether the 11 plus was a fair test of ability as evidence suggests that private tutoring can make a real difference to outcomes, offering an unfair advantage to the middle class parents who can afford extra tuition.
The second problem was the quality of the secondary moderns and the expectations which the staff had of their pupils. Most were expected to leave at the statutory minimum age as it was assumed that university was just to feasible for the pupils. Grammar schools received higher funding and, unsurprisingly, attracted the better teachers.
As a result the move to comprehensivisation was not a political hot potato at the time. Some comprehensives had been established before the Labour victory at the 1964 general election and the arrival of Tony Crosland at the Department of Education. Only a handful of local authorities actively resisted the requirement to produce plans for a comprehensive system. Strongly Conservative local authority areas – such as Surrey – converted their grammar schools into comprehensives. Some of those grammar schools (such as Kingston Grammar) went private. More grammar schools were closed under the reign of a certain female Conservative education secretary than under any Labour predecessor. Later, it is true, Margaret Thatcher regretted what she had allowed to happen, but at the time she did not question the direction of travel.
But the antagonism towards grammar schools from the Left-liberal elite is the one clear constant from those times to this. The Labour party is largely united around opposition to Theresa May’s proposals. For them, Tony Crosland’s promise to “destroy every fucking grammar school” is not an infamous statement made by a former public school boy whose disdain for those who had succeeded by their own efforts was total. Rather, it is a rallying cry. It is essential that the present generation of Conservative politicians stand firmly against that attitude. We must support Theresa May, but at the same time ensure that access to grammar schools is not closed forever at 11, and that those schools not in the grammar system are properly resourced and provide a first class education for their pupils.