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Why Britain Needs Grammar Schools

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On Andrew Neil's This Week programme on Thursday, 6 December, writer and journalist, Tony Parsons talked about increasing inequality and how the loss of the grammar schools was crucial to this. He said "As I was growing up there were five British Prime Ministers in a row that were educated by the state 1964 to 1997 and I don't think that could ever happen again. We will forever be ruled by unexceptional men who had exceptional education"

Andrew Neil replied by saying "What or who is to blame? Politicians kicked away ladders for bright working class kids, they must take a lot of the blame. Grammar schools are despised from David Cameron to Ed Milliband. They hate the idea of them. Education is the great driving force of social mobility."

That the This Week debate started with the problems of inequality and then turned to education is surely right, as we will never advance the cause of equality of opportunity without everyone from every background having access to the best education. Grammar schools are the best way to address this problem and that, by destroying most of them, the "ladder was kicked away" for many ordinary citizens.

I agree and do so for one overriding reason. In Britain, unlike most other countries, there is a highly developed private school system. Some of the private schools, the top "public schools", are geared up to produce people who can walk straight into Oxbridge and on to a career of their choosing. If this career is politics they will have an inbuilt advantage in all the major parties.

In addition to the "public schools" there are a large number of private schools, most of them expensive with very few bursaries granted. These mostly provide a higher standard of education with smaller class sizes than the state comprehensive schools so giving the children of richer parents a head start over others. This situation can only lead to more inequality and less representation of people from all backgrounds in important positions.

Ideally the comprehensive system should improve itself so that its schools could provide an education equivalent to the private schools. But this is never going to happen. It could happen, as it does in other countries, if there were no strong private school sector. But the comprehensive system is simply not designed to compete in this way and cannot by its nature.

Many middle class families in, for instance, London do not like the idea of sending their children to private schools but feel forced to do so for the sake of their children's future. These are often not rich people and the burden of school fees can become almost intolerable.

However, free state grammar schools can, did and do compete. In the past, 20% of pupils attended them before the notorious destruction of them by the now Libdem peer, Shirley Williams. As much as I would like to see a comprehensive system that worked it is just not going to happen and the problems of inequality will continue forever if free state education means only comprehensive education.

I would propose the re-instituting of grammar schools but there needs to be more flexibility in the allocation of pupils to a grammar school or not than there was before. Even with the old system there was a 13 plus as well as an 11 plus exam and this did work to some extent. We need more permeability of the selection for the new grammar schools to that there is an ongoing possibility for pupils to enter them at almost any age. And 11 is probably not the right age to decide entry particularly now with far more going onto higher education. Perhaps 13 would be a better age to decide selection.

The new grammar schools would expressly be there in competition with private schools and when successful would absorb more and more of their pupils. Eventually many private schools would not be able to survive independently and so would be incorporated into the state system.

It would be nice to think that grammar schools could then whither away but the reality is that the public schools like Eton would always be there. You cannot ban them otherwise they will simply go abroad and in any case we should think very hard and long before we ban, i.e. criminalize, anything.

The refusal to embrace grammar schools is an instance of how the views of the political classes are dislocated from the population at large. As with membership of the EU, the views of the electorate can gain no purchase on the political processes.