Chris Blackhurst: Grammar schools educated people to lead the world. They can do so again

Schools like mine instilled self-confidence. They applauded intellectual prowess

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Very soon now, the bulldozers will move in and demolish what remains of my old school, Barrow-in-Furness Grammar School for Boys at Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. In its place, on the football and rugby pitches we used to occupy, with a mixture of endeavour and skill (in my case, very much the former rather than the latter), will rise the building for the new Furness Academy.

Gone will be the classrooms set around quadrangles, the assembly hall complete with gold-lettered wooden honours boards, the laboratories with their still-familiar – even today – whiffs of Bunsen gas and caustic potions. Replacing them will come the accoutrements of the modern academy school, among them TV and music, drama and dance studios.

Some of my teachers wore gowns. All of them focused on one academic subject. None bore the titles of "director of inclusion and family liaison", "director of community enrichment and specialism", "director of student engagement and standards", "director of innovation", as their academy successors do today.

Let me be clear: my school was by no means perfect. It could be grim and sometimes brutal; it was resolutely male, in personnel and attitude; aside from sport, there was little by way of extra-curricular; it was not a habitat for aesthetes. Nor is there much especially wrong with the new academy. Just as the former grammar was typical of a type, so is its successor representative of a kind. But what my school provided was a bridge. My parents could not afford to pay fees, yet I received, for free, a fee-paying education.

Soon after I left, that aspiration perished. The boys' school and the girls' next door were turned into a joint co-ed comprehensive; now they've shifted again, to become an academy. Of course, I was lucky: I passed the 11-plus. My sister did not and went to a secondary modern (later, she moved to the girls' grammar in the sixth form); one of my closest friends failed and headed to the technical college. They were made to feel second best, at just 11. It was cruel and unfair. But it was a system that also produced prime ministers – Harold Wilson, Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher were all grammar educated. Grammars produced cabinet ministers, judges, and industry and business leaders.

That state-taught conveyor belt has all but ceased. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has admitted as much, complaining of the dominance of private schools over public life. Nick Clegg has said much the same in a plea for greater social mobility, pointing out that 70 per cent of High Court judges and 54 per cent of FTSE 100 CEOs were educated in the independent sector.

The arguments for and against selection are well rehearsed. On the positive side, grammar schools promoted academic excellence and meritocracy. They gave places to bright pupils from poorer families. Negatively, the entry criteria could be unjust. It was based on performance in a single set of exams and was open to abuse, with the better-off, pushier parents hiring coaches.

While some working-class children made it through, the grammar schools were heavily skewed in favour of those from the wealthier parts of town. Those who didn't make it saw themselves as failures, not so good, consigned to a different, inferior path, often resorting to apologising later for having gone to an "ordinary secondary mod".

For having experienced just how divisive the two-tier structure was, with my sister, my friend and others I knew, and for having witnessed the deprivation of the secondary modern where my father taught (he went to the same grammar school, then became a teacher at Risedale Secondary next door, across the playing fields but miles away in terms of where its pupils were heading), I was in favour of comprehensives.

I was nostalgic for the grammar but I saw the hope for something better and more equal, that would use the facilities and traditions of my school for all, regardless of their ability, that would ensure the most able still realised their potential while pulling up those who were not so equipped.

On paper, it seemed sensible enough. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it was excitingly progressive – doing away with elitism and prejudice, the haves and the have-nots. What I did not foresee was that the grammar schools like mine afforded something more intangible than mere paper percentages of passes of grades A* to C. They instilled an ethos in those who passed through them. It was about self-confidence and belief, recognising achievement, applauding intellectual prowess.

Looking back, it's hard to imagine that I'd never met a public schoolboy until I went to university. It did not matter – I hailed from a school that was recognisably like theirs, that had the same values, pursued a familiar creed and spoke an identical language. They had quads, we had quads; they wore blazers, we wore blazers; they were prefects, we were prefects; they were divided into top and bottom sets, we were divided into top and bottom sets; they did Oxbridge, we did Oxbridge. Their masters could have been our masters. None of us grammar-school products felt in any way inferior to our public-school counterparts.

That character spilled over into the community. My town was a northern industrial town. No matter – while it sent boys into the shipyard and factories, some were trained for the world beyond, more than capable of taking on all-comers. "The Grammar School" was a source of civic pride, to be admired and nurtured. Was there the same regard for its comprehensive successor? What about the new academy? It's hard to tell as I no longer live there but I would bet the answer is no.

What's happened in the intervening decades is that the public schools have pulled away or the state schools have fallen, depending on your preference – or perhaps a bit of both has occurred. We're left with a yawning chasm that late in the day even the likes of Gove (Robert Gordon's College, private) and Clegg (Westminster School, private) are recognising.

I would not wish to see a return to the delivery of an envelope that represented terrible finality at the tender age of 11. But new grammar schools for which the cleverest are pared off but with genuine opportunities for entry at 13, 15 and in the sixth form would begin to fill that gaping hole. Accompany them, too, with technical, vocation-based schools for the less academic but practically minded.

We need to act. We can't carry on with ever-increasing polarisation, causing greater immobility and stagnation. I don't believe in turning back the clock per se but I do think a grave mistake should be recognised and corrected. Restore the grammar schools, resurrect the honours boards, put state school names in lights.

c.blackhurst@independent.co.uk

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