Are grammar schools liberal?
I ask because it rather bizarrely came up on Question Time when Ming was on and it prompted him into one of his leftier rants about social divisiveness and so forth. (I also ask because I enjoy sticking grenades under bits of policy we hold as sacrosanct, but that’s just my own particular perversity…)
The principal argument against grammar schools has remained unchanged for quite a while now; that by forcible dividing pupils at age 11, grammar schools established a fundamental divide between those who passed and those who failed, and that these attitudes dogged those who failed throughout life. Which is all very fine and splendid, but then it does raise another question;
In what way was any of that the fault of the grammar schools?
It should always be noted that the original specification of the 1944 Education Act had three tiers rather than two. The catastrophic nature of the failure to adequately fund the Technical Schools as an alternative to the Secondary Moderns cannot be overstated. In a three-tier system, your position in the grand scheme of things can be considered to have some connection to your ability; in a two-tier system, your position is the result of some arbitrary line in the sand that will never be acceptable to people, and with very good reason.
So let’s rephrase the question; is selection by ability liberal?
Now that is a relevant question, since what we are being offered at the moment is the very opposite, i.e. selection by anything but ability. First there were the specialist schools, designed to allow some selection by aptitude. Now let’s be very clear, specialist school status is bullshit; I’ve known this ever since Katharine Lady Berkeley school (taught French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Chinese) was refused Language College status in the same year my own school (taught French and German but was a grammar and a Beacon school) was granted that status. The net result is that specialist school status exists not to improve bad schools but to improve good ones.
Then Blair and co. come marching in with their big size nines and load on City Academies, Trust Schools and now Faith Schools. Again, let’s not beat around the bush; City Academies exist to give a mechanism whereby government can foist PFI rebuilding on any school that’s even so much as mediocre, to which I refer you to my previous comments about rail privatisation and how making the trains look shiny never solved the fundamental issue. Trust Schools exist to allow the schools that were good in the first place to ensure that status by letting them cherry-pick, and since in order to placate
Thankfully, that whole system is so legally unworkable that it will collapse around the government’s ears. I can even tell you exactly where and how; it’ll be somewhere in
In a way, we as a party have the solution already, in that we support full implementation of the Tomlinson Report. And yet Tomlinson remains an incomplete article in that it fails to consider the downstream implications of its own suggestions; ultimately, Tomlinson breaks the final division in education, that between academic and vocational subjects. The importance of that cannot be understated, not least when you consider it in reference to Bernard Woolley;
“Who wanted comprehensive education? Parents? Pupils? No, the National
Unionof Teachers wanted it.”
My point is, if there ceases to be a stigma around vocational subjects, then not only can pupils be allowed to specialise but teachers can be too. Once that happens, does it make any sense to coop them up in the same building as the Oxbridge candidates?
And yet, the best argument I can give against the idea that grammar schools are inherently socially divisive is my own. As I said, I went to Sir Thomas Rich’s School, one of the remaining state grammar schools. And yes, it was quite middle class as things go, but it was middle class in the 80’s way, middle class through people who had worked their way up not banked on the fortunes of others. In sixth form, a good proportion of people had done GCSE’s at comprehensives (including the worst of the lot, one so bad it’s now become a faith-based
But here’s the clincher; many of the best and the brightest were from
And there’s the rub; a grammar school system, with a full system of tiers, is ultimately the only truly meritocratic system going. It’s the only system that allows people to concentrate on and improve their talents in the right way for them, individually. Try and tell me that that’s not liberal? I shake my head, I really do…