Grammar schools are the breeding ground of privilege

Different categories of pupil in the state system poison society. I know from my own history

DEMOCRACY IS a wonderful thing - provided that it produces the decision you want. The last Conservative government (which, with luck, may turn out to be the last Conservative government) instituted a system of ballots whereby the parents of pupils in state schools were given the chance to vote to opt out of local authority control. The result has been the grant-maintained category of schools. Wonderful! The parents - or at any rate a majority of those who voted - decided how their kids should be educated.

Now, however, the very same people who thought that it was terrific for parents to be allowed to vote about the grant-maintained status of schools have worked themselves up into a terrible state about other parents being allowed to vote on how their children should be educated. This time, parents are being given the chance to end selection from the age of 11 by ending grammar school education within the state system in their area.

The hurdles that hamper even triggering a ballot are so high that winning the right to a ballot will be even harder than winning one. But the elitists huff and puff that even to make such ballots possible is the wrong sort of democracy.

I went to a grammar school. When I was at what is now called primary school, selection was the only way you could get a higher education. Either you won the scholarship, or you left school at 14. Fortunately, that sort of dilemma was ended a long time ago.

Successive governments of both major parties introduced and entrenched comprehensive education, giving all children the chance to go to university. To her credit, there was no more active practitioner of abolishing selection than Margaret Thatcher, during her period as Secretary of State for Education.

The result is that, at this stage of a post-war period in which the Tories have been in office for two-thirds of the time, only 166 grammar schools in England remain within the state system. Half of those are in the south of the country.

If these schools account for such a small minority of the total school population, say the defenders of selection, then what is the harm? The harm is that different categories of pupil within the state system can poison the system and society. I know, from my own history.

I went to a grammar school. I was widely regarded as having succeeded, as having more worth than my friends who did not pass the 11-plus, whereas I simply turned out to be lucky in an educational lottery.

I also know how the system can be poisoned, from my experience as an MP. In Manchester we got rid of state grammar schools long ago. But a neighbouring local authority, controlled by the Tories, retained grammar schools. Each year I would be visited at my constituency surgeries by a small number of parents who wanted me to help their children get into a nearby grammar school.

Because I do not regard it as my right to make judgements on the aspirations of parents for their children, I would tell those parents that I disagreed with their ambition but would send the letter requested. I am sure that I had no effect; but if the children of those parents made it into a grammar school I would be thanked effusively - the child was a success. If the outcome was to the contrary, the parents were woebegone; their child was branded a failure and would carry the burden of that failure for life.

In Manchester I see the result of segregation and categorisation of children in a further way. Although in our city we do not have state grammar schools, we do have independent grammar schools; and three of those are in the area I represent - Manchester Grammar School, William Hulme's, and Manchester High School for Girls.

These really are elite schools. For example, they get an immensely disproportionate number of visits from the Royal Family. The Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal have, between them, made several visits to independent schools in my constituency. To my knowledge, in all my 29 years as an MP no member of the Royal Family has visited a state school in my constituency.

These three grammar schools have much better facilities than the best state schools. In so far as these facilities are provided by privately sourced funding or by school fees, there is no justification for complaint. But some of those facilities have been subsidised by public money - by the taxes of parents whose children go to state schools. The assisted places scheme, which this Government is, to its credit, abolishing, has been pumping nearly pounds 2.5m a year into these three schools - money that is badly needed by local state schools for the most elementary repairs and refurbishment.

At the peak of the scheme, fewer than 100 of my constituents' children obtained assisted places at these schools. Most of the pupils at these schools come from far away. The average travel time for a pupil at Manchester Grammar School is 50 minutes. There is no point in my constituency that is more than 15 minutes' drive from any other point in the constituency.

Just before the last election, the then headmistress of Manchester High School for Girls invited me to a tea party to meet pupils living in my constituency who had assisted places. Maybe she felt that this experience would dissuade me from my support for the abolition of assisted places.

I asked one of the teenage girls what she would have done if she had not been granted an assisted place. She screwed up her nose and said with disdain, "I suppose I would have had to go to X [a very good state school]." She plainly regarded herself as superior to her neighbours who had no alternative to X. That sense of superiority would accompany her throughout life.

I suppose I could be accused of hypocrisy, for having had a grammar school education myself and yet believing in the abolition of the grammar school sector. But I do not advocate the abolition of independent grammar schools - provided they are not subsidised by the state. I do not even advocate the abolition of state grammar schools.

I simply believe that parents should have the right to vote on whether their children should be subjected to selection at 11-plus. It is those who do not agree with me, but who did agree that parents should have the right to vote for grant-maintained status, who are the real hypocrites.

The writer is Labour MP for Manchester Gorton

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