Britain’s education system can be neatly summarised in this humorous anecdote from the 1950s: news was brought to Evelyn Waugh that his friend Randolph Churchill (son of Winston) was in hospital. After enquiring why, Waugh was told that doctors had found a non-malignant tumour and he was having an operation to take it out. Waugh said, “Well, it was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant – and remove it.”
In much the same way, in the 1960s our politicians destroyed the only part of the education system that was functioning successfully – the grammar schools. They allowed young people from any background to access a rigorous education, to fulfil their academic potential and to advance up the social scales. Between 1964 and 1997 every single British Prime Minister – Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major – was the beneficiary of a state grammar education.
Of course, they were not perfect. The 11+ examination, as many of its vociferous critics will testify, was often a crude selection policy. But the principle of selection itself is sound. Indeed, those that argue against grammar schools routinely use the low-performing technical schools and secondary moderns – the alternatives to those who failed the 11+ – as their first line of defence. How can a system possibly condemn children to a lower standard of education after an exam sat at the age of 11, they cry.
Perhaps they are right, and it is easy to sympathise with this view. But equally it completely misses the point. The fact the alternatives to grammar schools were weak does not detract from their success, and any rational person would surely seek to maintain grammars and simply improve the alternative routes. Instead, the revolutionary politicians of the 1960s – led by Roy Jenkins – utterly destroyed the only non-malignant part of the British education system. They have been aided and abetted ever since by both Labour and Conservative governments, and the victims were – and are – the people of Britain who find they are insufficiently wealthy to enjoy a good education.
Indeed, somewhat ironically a much more discriminatory method of selection than the 11+ is now in place – the level of a family’s finances. If parents can afford to send their child to a private school, they often will. This is a perfectly sensible choice, as their child will generally receive an excellent education both inside and outside the classroom (with superb opportunities in sport, music, drama and so on). Many of Britain’s private schools are fine institutions grounded in tradition, history and academic excellence, but they are open to a small proportion of the population. Likewise, other parents will send their child to what on the surface is a comprehensive school, but the high house prices in the catchment area effectively render it another case of selection by money.
The majority of British children are thus condemned to the one-size-fits-all egalitarian project that is comprehensive education, and the consequences are there for any rational person to see. Seven per cent of children receive private education, and yet the higher echelons of politics, academia, business and even sport (more than a third of Britain’s 2012 Olympic medallists were privately educated) are dominated by that minority. This is not a diatribe against private schools and those that attend them – far from it. Instead, our state system should be able to provide an education system that aspires to such heights, and grammar schools would be the best way for the academically bright to flourish.
Furthermore, although this essay asks for one way to improve the education system, I would like to suggest the restoration of grammar schools with the caveat that the alternatives were much stronger. Technical schools should thus also be rigorous, and respected, places of education, where those that are gifted practically rather than academically can fulfil their potential. Also, instead of an 11+, the selection system could mimic Germany’s whereby at roughly the age of 13 the teenager, their parents and the school come to an agreed decision over the next step.
Some readers may describe themselves as left wing, others as right wing, others as indifferent. But surely people of all political persuasions agree with the fact that education is the building block upon which a fair, free and productive society is built, and political dogma or idealisms should never hijack what is best for the future of the country.
Conservative critics – and I mean ‘Burkean’ conservatives rather than members of the Tory Party (as they are two entirely different things altogether, but that is the subject for another essay) – believe the motive of those who destroyed grammar schools was social engineering. Peter Hitchens writes how “Since the Left in Britain have never reconciled themselves to authority – monarchical, aristocratic, religious, traditional and ancient, their attitude towards the inherited education system remains instinctively, automatically revolutionary.” In short, their motives were overtly political rather than educational.
British politics is thus trapped in a ludicrous situation whereby countless politicians, who have benefited from either a grammar or private education, wholeheartedly oppose grammar schools, and ridicule private schools. In public, they brand themselves as champions of so-called ‘equality’ and pour scorn on the antiquated notion of selective education, and then in private send their children to fee-paying schools, or state schools that are located in such expensive areas of the country that they are private in anything but name.
Diane Abbott, Britain’s first black MP, is one example. She is a staunch socialist, and openly criticised fellow Labour MP Harriet Harman for sending her children to a fee-paying school. Low and behold, when the time came for Abbott’s child to be educated, her supposed principles dissolved in an instant, and she sent her son to the £10,000-a-year City of London School. When she attempts to justify this brazen U-turn, she becomes tangled in a muddle of illogical, self-serving hypocrisy, and we are granted an intriguing snapshot of how dogma trumps reality amongst the political class.
It is time for this nonsense to stop. So-called ‘positive’ discrimination, whereby Oxford and Cambridge are heckled into accepting a prescribed quota of state-school pupils, is a classic case of misguidedly tackling the symptom rather than a cause. The government should have no place in dictating or influencing their selection policy anyway. Instead, they should restore grammar schools (while simultaneously strengthening the other options) and allow academic British children from any background to furnish their minds with beauty and fulfil their potential.
Likewise, it would allow those with practical skills to flourish too – instead of being coerced into protracted academic learning, they could develop and hone their chosen craft at specialist institutions. Why should plumbers be any less valued than academics and writers? In Germany, from whom we could learn a lot, craftsmen are very highly valued and form the backbone of their economy. In Britain, they often drift out of education at the age of 16 and, without any state help, fall into the career instead of actively choosing it. They deserve better.
To conclude, Britain’s education system has been riddled by an ideological dogma for nearly half a century, and the time has come for change. Grammar schools must be restored. It must be noted – as debates on education so often fall into this trap – that teachers themselves are not to blame, and that most of them work extremely hard to serve the need of every child under their tuition. This is not a critique of the teaching profession, but the education system as a whole. If you believe that every child deserves the right to fulfil their potential, if you care about the future of the United Kingdom, and if you wish to see a country brimming with bright, enthusiastic children of every creed and colour, and from every social background, you will join me in calling for the restoration of grammar schools