End stagnation and create aspiration with free grammar schools

I did not go to Eton but to a free grammar school that operated along equivalent lines

Share

When we were shown round Tiffin Girls School in Kingston, south-west London, our guide was a sixthformer who lived in Stockwell. To those who don't know London, that is a lengthy commute, involving different trains and buses.

After my daughter later succeeded in winning a place at the school, one of her friends was from Shepherd's Bush, a daily journey that also defies contemplation. Again, when the son of a friend sat the entrance exam for Tiffin Boys, his neighbour in the examination hall hailed from Kent - if he got in, the family was going to move.

For anyone familiar with any of our remaining 164 state grammar schools these tales are old hat. The fact is: parents will do anything they can to get their sons and daughters in. Private coaching? Absolutely, if they can afford it. Long daily trek? Certainly. Relocating the home? If needs be.

In Kingston, where I live, stories abound of the lengths and sacrifices people will make. There's one that does the rounds of the boy who flew over from India to do the Tiffin exam. If he was successful, his parents and siblings were going to sell up and emigrate to London.

It's easy to mock such behaviour as pushy parenting gone mad, as fathers and mothers who crave exam success for their children above everything else. There is, it is true, something objectionable about it. But dig a little deeper and it's apparent they are chasing something more.

Yes, of course, they're pursuing a bevy of excellent grades with the prospect of a good university on the end of them. But they're also seeking a self-confidence, an ability to make career choices, to get on in life that they believe is shut off to their children elsewhere.

Except in the private schools.

But they can't or won't pay for those, so they chase an elusive spot at a grammar school.

In his speech, the former Prime Minister Sir John Major said he was “outraged on behalf of the people abandoned when social mobility is lost.” The Prime Minister's response to Major's clear attack on the domination of public life by a private school elite was to say, “what counts is not where you come from but where you are going”.

For David Cameron, educated at Eton and Oxford, having a say in where that route takes him is a given. From birth he was always going to determine what he did - perhaps not the job of Prime Minister but one of a senior politician.

I've been similarly fortunate. I did not go to Eton but to a school that operated along equivalent lines, where the teachers wore gowns, we had a Latin option, and we regularly sent pupils to Oxbridge.

I went to a boys' grammar school, long since closed and turned into a comprehensive. For free, I had what amounted to a private education. We had all the trappings of a fee-paying school but without the fees.

My classmates came from all parts of the town, from all backgrounds. Pass the 11-plus and you were in, and on your way. It was a cruel system: failure, unless the child was fortunate enough to gain entry to the grammar school in the sixth form, could signal being consigned to the educational scrapheap.

That was the reason why, when my grammar school was abolished, I actually welcomed it. I had witnessed at first hand the pain the 11-plus caused, to my sister and others, how divisive and unfair it was.

Getting rid of elite schools like mine, so ending the tyranny of the 11-plus, appeared to be the answer. But the government did only half the job.

The grammars were axed because they were exclusive and the preserve of the affluent middle class (they were open to everyone but there's no denying the preponderance of children from the better-heeled areas). However, ministers allowed another type of school, equally exclusive and even more of a preserve of the affluent middle class to remain.

It's arguable, of course, whether the government has the power to terminate the independent schools. But while the fee-payers remained, there was always a need for institutions that could match them, that supplied their students with the same advantages and opportunities.

There never was any threat towards the fee-payers, but by removing the free selective grammars an imbalance was created. The successor comps could not step into that vacated space, and the private schools grew ever stronger and pulled away.

The result, as Major highlighted, has been a damning and shaming lack of mobility. It was a mistake to imagine the grammars were all about exams. Indeed, Major, who obtained just three O-levels at his south-west London grammar (now a comprehensive) and went on to become Prime Minister is proof of that.

He was able to rub shoulders with boys from Eton, Harrow and the like in the higher echelons of the Conservative Party precisely because he had been to a grammar school.

The other evening, three of us met for dinner in London's West End. One has his own, hugely successful computer consultancy. The other is very high-up in one of our giant pharma groups. And there was me.

We talked about our home town, the grammar school we all attended, our class mates and how well many of them had done, and how far we'd come. We were, we agreed, extremely fortunate. We'd been able to compete on level terms with people that had gone to famous, posh, private schools. It did not cross our minds that we were somehow inferior - neither, crucially, did it cross the minds of those who awarded our university places or employed us.

There was nothing wrong with scrapping grammar schools.

But it was wrong to allow the independent schools to continue. They should have shut both types of school or not at all. The feepayers are never going to disappear.

On that basis, the free grammar schools should be restored - otherwise, as Major rightly said, all we will be left with is a “Victorian divide between stagnation and aspiration”.

i@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal  

What is 4Chan? And why does it threaten women like Emma Watson?

Memphis Barker
Chuka Umunna was elected MP for Streatham in 2010  

Could flirty Chuka Umunna be worth a punt for Labour’s top job?

Matthew Norman
Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world