Tim Luckhurst: Will Gordon Brown bring back selection?

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The Independent Online

Bridgemary, a specialist state secondary school, is attempting to resolve it in a manner that should appeal to all who care sincerely about widening access to opportunity. It should appeal powerfully to the man most widely expected to succeed Tony Blair as PM. Reluctant though he is to recall it, our Chancellor of the Exchequer is living testimony to the transformative power of selective education. At the age of 10 Gordon Brown was picked to participate in one of the most intensive experiments in nurturing bright children ever promoted in Britain.

From his class at Kirkcaldy High School, a selective grammar, he was chosen to join the e-stream, a project that aimed to stretch the brightest to the very limits of their ability. This was socialist Scotland's way of proving that children from Fife miners' cottages could compete on equal terms with the best Eton and Fettes could produce. It worked.

Brown achieved top marks in his O-levels when he was only 14. A year later he repeated the feat at Higher Level. He was accepted to read history at Edinburgh University when he was 15 and began his undergraduate career soon afterwards.

Among Kirkcaldy e-streamers Brown was only one dramatic example of success. His contemporary and friend Murray Elder is now Lord Elder, a Labour member of the upper house and intimate of the New Labour elite. Several others became the first in their families ever to reach university. There were failures too, but the ambitious Presbyterians behind the e-stream were unsentimental. They understood that without its opposite, success is meaningless.

Today, the National Union of Teachers' virulent hostility to that self-evident truth needs to be juxtaposed with the enthusiastic support that exists for it from the thinking wing of the French Socialist and Italian Communist Parties to democratic governments throughout Eastern Europe. If you have wondered why young Polish, Czech, Hungarian and Estonian workers over here speak such flawless English and thrive professionally look no further than the state schools that produce them.

Rigorous selection is the crucial ingredient. Children are taught according to ability, not woolly-headed ideology. So are the brilliant young Chinese students who find it increasingly easy to take the jobs of their British counterparts. So, too, the Northern Irish pupils from the Falls Road, Andersonstown and Lisburn whose grammar schools help them to win a disproportionate number of places at Oxford and Cambridge.

When he started at university Gordon Brown's brother, John, described him as "boring but very clever". Anyone who has ever suffered through one of his interminable interviews on the Today programme knows that our chancellor's manner of speech is still turgid. The important question is whether he is still clever.

His stewardship of the economy bequeathed to him by Kenneth Clarke has provided scant test for his intellectual mettle. But if he makes it to 10 Downing Street, Gordon Brown's stewardship of education should reveal the truth.

Does Gordon have the courage to admit that the sort of academic selection that took him from a humble manse to national leadership should be available to all? Will he acknowledge and act upon the irrefutable evidence that no system of state schooling has ever promoted social mobility more effectively or more fairly than selection by academic ability?

I know the answer. Gordon Brown will not open the opportunity that forged his own career to modern schoolchildren. Selection was good enough for virtually every Labour cabinet minister since 1945 but it is too good for the rest of us. So, in place of expectation I offer a prediction. Twenty years from now, pupils from Bridgemary community school will have risen to national prominence. With luck, one will become Secretary of State for Education. Then we might get a minister with the guts to reintroduce mandatory teaching by ability and so achieve the equality of opportunity that standard comprehensive schools have been destroying for three gruesome decades.


The writer is a former editor of The Scotsman