Selective and notoriously biased against poorer children, grammar schools were almost eliminated in the UK. Now they are back in the limelight, with the Conservative government considering their reintroduction.
Parents actually want grammar schools, the education secretary Justine Greening announced on Thursday. It would be a betrayal of trust not to give them what they want. Parents and local communities should decide if they want grammar schools, not politicians.
In this false but repeated emphasis on parental choice, we find that typical, baffling dynamic of Thatcherite politics. It claims to devolve governmental responsibility in favour of "our people", as Greening repeats, whilst offering very particular rendition of what the people can and should hope for.
Greening's claim that "ordinary working families" would send their children to grammar schools if they had the opportunity is typically deceptive as a policy argument. It is perfectly understandable that a family might send its children to the local selective school, if there is one, in a society that both (a) contains selective schools, and (b) rewards those who have managed to get into them. A society organised along different lines, egalitarian ones perhaps, would present a different range of choices. Parents' wants would inevitably change.
The issue of parental choice appears to be a smokescreen, and the drive for a new wave of grammar schools a distraction. The response from the opposition is that we should be focusing instead on our chronically under-resourced school system and its demoralised workforce. Filtered through the media, this argument is reduced to the shadow education secretary's claim that Greening "cooked the books". Yet again, we have a government minister choosing to "decide the evidence by starting with the policy".
Both political positions emphasise the need to "improve standards" and work towards "better outcomes". Overall we must work towards what Greening calls "a true meritocracy" - though the term meritocracy remains, as always, poorly defined.
What remains off the agenda, however, is the absence of a coherent strategy for social mobility. As such Greening's "true meritocracy" remains a pipe dream or a disingenuous promise. There is no coordinated institutional response that might provide the groundwork for a 'true meritocracy' in the original (and some might say dystopian) sense of the word.
Since the state first took control of schooling in 1870, a variety of school systems have been attempted, most notably the tripartite secondary school system, pioneered in the mid-twentieth century. Its triad of technical, modern and grammar schools was designed to reflect the natural distribution of ability in the population. This system was gradually replaced by the comprehensive system, with only a few counties, such as Kent, retaining grammar schools from the older model.
At all points in the history of state schooling, provision was fragmented and uneven. Policies were never completely enacted, and old systems and schools deriving from them survived. Still, each model was guided by a more or less coherent vision of meritocracy - the idea that each member of the population should be rewarded for what you know, not who you know. According to this version of meritocracy, only a joined-up institutional response, where all schools were to be part of the same coordinated system, could ensure this would happen. The problem remained consistent: how to ensure through coordinated action that ability and talent are recognised, rewarded, and appropriately distributed across schools and jobs.
Today the situation is very different. We face a bewildering array of academies, independent schools, surviving comprehensives, faith schools, and free schools, which Labour policies as well as Tory ones helped entrench. The disorder inherent in this system seems quite deliberate, or at least convenient.
In this disordered system, meritocracy is an empty term. It is no longer the adopted responsibility of government to ensure that the system, the distribution of talent and reward, is perfected. The problem of meritocracy is reduced to the individual. It becomes a matter of personal resilience and aspiration. Structural barriers (including the problems generated by a fragmented and incoherent school system, not to forget rising levels of child poverty in the UK) recede into the background.
The fact that there is no overall structural logic regarding schooling (in contrast to the comprehensive ideal, and the tripartite ideal before it) makes any discussion for, and particularly against, grammar schools difficult. We no longer have a strong social ideal by which we might measure any proposed reform. Though grammar schools are today dominated by the wealthy, if they could be reformed to reduce (though probably never eliminate) that bias, there is no strong ideological position that would oppose their introduction.
As I argue in Benign Violence, we live in a landscape of defeated and contradictory ideals. This means that any debate is, as a result, confused and often self-defeating. It is entirely to the government's benefit to contribute further to that confusion, whilst issuing commitments in favour of parental choice and opportunity that nobody can really test.