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

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Pay between ?110 - ?130 Day: Randstad Education Cardiff:...

SAP Deployment Manager

£480 per day + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Deployment Manager-Ta...

Microsoft Dynamics CRM Consultant

£50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Urgently seeking a Dynam...

Test Lead - Financial Reporting - Banking - London

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Test Lead, London, Banking, Financial Reporting, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Prostitutes face a high risk of contracting HIV, yet they are offered little help from the Government  

Want to rid the world of HIV? Then you can start by decriminalising prostitution

Pamela Das
 

Are we politely looking the other way when it comes to Kate, the ever-shrinking Duchess?

Grace Dent
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game