Grammar school guilt: Make selective education fairer

As a former grammar school girl, my own feelings about them are difficult to decode - but 'guilty gratitude' is close
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The Independent Online

I'm picturing what it would be like to go to school with Home Secretary Theresa May. Theresa (or Treez as we'd call her) and I queuing up in the school canteen, admiring the Radiohead lyrics I've etched on to my desk with a compass – and look! There's T-Ma and me leading the netball A-team to victory. Aside from the obvious – I am many, many, many years younger than Theresa May – this scenario is just about conceivable because we both benefited from a similar sort of education: we were both grammar school girls.

Theresa must have particularly fond memories of her time at Holton Park Girls' Grammar School in Oxfordshire, because last week she controversially backed plans to open a "satellite" selective school in her Maidenhead constituency. Although it's attached to an existing grammar school, this would effectively be the first new state-funded selective school in a generation. Many have interpreted her support as signalling a change in government policy towards selection in education.

My own feelings about grammar schools are almost as difficult to decode, but "guilty gratitude" is close. Gratitude, because I know that whatever successes I've had since were possible only because of that educational advantage. Guilty, because of the many deserving children I knew who weren't afforded the same. It's true that grammar schools provide a path to achievement for hard-working children from poorer backgrounds, but it's only a tiny dirt track, when what's needed is a roaring, super-speed, five-lane highway.

The success of grammars as a tool for social mobility is measured not by individual success stories but by their impact on society as a whole. One recent study shows that areas with a grammar school system have a wider income gap than areas where education is fully comprehensive. Another demonstrates that while downward mobility is increasing for the first time in generation, this has little to do with education. "What we really need is to try to increase the growth of top-end professional and managerial jobs," said sociologist Dr John Goldthorpe. "It's no use having a growing proportion of young people with higher-level qualifications unless there's the demand there on the employment side."

There are still things that could be done to make selective education fairer: wider catchment areas and admissions procedures which are less open to abuse by middle-class parents with private tutors. Grammar schools should also offer real opportunities for admission, not just at age 11, but at 13, 15 and 17. None of this, however, gets at the fundamental inequality in education. Theresa May knows as well as I do that grammar schools aren't fair, but for as long as it is possible to buy a better education, can you really begrudge us this little inequity?

Mockney mash-up

"Russell Brand's writing feels like someone is about to shout 'PARKLIFE!' at the end of every sentence." That suggestion, first made by Twitter user @danbarker, has been enthusiastically taken up by others on social media. Brand's @rustyrockets Twitter account was assailed with one-word "parklife" tweets; a mash-up of Brand's Newsnight appearance popped up on YouTube and Nigel Farage chose the P-word to conclude his Independent column on Friday. For the benefit of the very young, the very old and the die-hard Oasis loyalists, "Parklife" is a reference to the 1994 hit single by Blur. In the song, Phil Daniels' cockney-accented meditations are regularly interrupted by mockney interjections from Damon Albarn.

Actually, both the Blur song and the Brand dig speak to a prevalent prejudice about accents in Britain. Personally, I keep two accents – one for relaxing at home and another that I save for best – but I've noticed that using a cockney accent to utter any word over three syllables (or two, once those unnecessary Ts have been dropped) can have a remarkable effect on an audience. Intellectual conversation conducted in any regional accent is a rare and exotic marvel to some, because people who don't speak RP must of course be uneducated, mustn't they? Or "fick" as we say in the East End.

I suspect one of the reasons why Brand is taking this drubbing so well (he's even begun signing off his own tweets with "parklife") is because it's not entirely unfamiliar. Brand (whose accent, like Albarn's, is actually more estuary than true cockney) once traded off the perceived exoticism of the clever cockney by incorporating it into his stand-up persona. Well, this is what you get.

Mysterious Moss breaks silence

Speaking of accents, Croydon-born Kate Moss has a purr that's perfectly pitched between posh and common. We're only now able to appreciate its finer points because the model has entered a new publicity-friendly era in her career. First we saw her singing along to X Factor in a Gogglebox charity special, and last week she invited British Vogue into her living room for a video interview.

In her 25 years at the top, Moss has given only a handful of interviews, and this seen-and-not-heard policy is widely credited with her enduring appeal. There are many beautiful and stylish women in the world, but only one of them is Kate Moss.

No doubt it was smart PR for Kate Moss the young model to remain silent and mysterious, but Kate Moss, as a 40-year-old fashion icon with something to say for herself? Now that really is interesting.

Let the retail rituals begin

Christmas is all about tradition – especially those "traditions" which were dreamed up by a marketing team within the past decade. You know it's Christmas (in November) when the Starbucks red cups arrive and you see the first extra-long Christmas ad on television.

In this year's John Lewis ad, a young boy finds a lover for his sexually repressed penguin, Monty. (Monty is the perfect name for a sexually repressed penguin.) Boots features family member rushing home to surprise their mum ("because she's special") and M&S has sent two fairies out to ensure that everyone has their glittery mini-dress ready to wear to the office party.

There's nothing wrong with some Christmas cockle-warming, but let's ask ourselves if it's really the seasonal spirit that has these high street retailers feeling so twinkly. Or is it just the prospect of flogging us some overpriced bath salts?