Nadine Dorries: I am upset by our grammar school debate

Why can't we replicate the independent sector in the state system?


The words "no selection by academic ability" have been chucked around the Conservative Party in the last few weeks as though the statement had no future consequences for the children it concerned. It has left me feeling frustrated and upset.

It would appear I wasn't the only one. Graham Brady MP, a past shadow minister for schools, has broken ranks with the Conservative front bench on the issue of grammar schools. He is a brave and principled man. To do such a thing with the dead hand of the Whip on your shoulder is no easy thing. He had evidence, which he gave to a national newspaper, which proves that the existence of a grammar school within an area raises the standard of education in all schools in that area.

The top players in any high-earning sector in this country have been through the independent or grammar school sector. Just take yourself into any city bank, stockbrokers, top law firm or medical school, and you'll find the majority have been privately educated.

What selective education does is provide academic children from all backgrounds with the means to compete, in the future labour market, with children who have been through the independent and public school system. Fact.

Just for the record, can I state that I do not want to see a return to grammar schools as we knew them. I, like most people who have thought about education, know that the flip side to the grammar system was the secondary modern school - such as the one I and the other kids from my Liverpool council estate attended.

My secondary modern became a comprehensive overnight. I watched the workmen change the board as I daydreamed out the classroom window. Out came the secondary modern sign and in went the shiny large placard pronouncing us as the first comprehensive in Liverpool.

A bright new sign, but the same dull future - for most of us. The comprehensive system was a huge experiment in social engineering, and it failed. Basing future education policy on another untried and untested system, the city academies, will mean putting an entire generation of children through another social experiment. Is this wise?

Academies are highly selective. They have no legal obligation to take children with special needs, which means such children attend the nearest comprehensive. In one comprehensive school in London, 59 per cent of its children have special needs, whereas the city academy, close by, has none. A two-tier system - sound familiar?

Academies also select by aptitude. I am waiting for just one person to explain why it's OK to select a child by skill or aptitude, or, as has been suggested this week, skin colour or race. If that aptitude is maths, it's a dirty word and out of the equation. What is wrong with saying that if we are going to have specialist academies, we have ones that also specialise in academia? Academic academies, now there's a thought.

The decision not to select by academic ability reinforces the difference between independent schools and the state system, and in itself holds a magnifying glass over the chasm of difference between the two systems. If you are fortunate enough to be able to send your child to an independent school you will have no chance of success if he or she is not able at maths, English, science and the classics. As many parents on the front benches will tell you.

So where does that leave the future for all? Who will be the bankers, the stockbrokers, the surgeons, scientists, and, the decision makers of tomorrow? Well, given that the overwhelming numbers of children who are studying science at university are from the independent sector, regrettably, I think we know the answer.

Independent schools have got it right. Common entrance at 13, streaming, a strong ethos, school identity, and, discipline. Why can't we replicate this in the state system? It is incumbent upon us politicians to do so.

It's about inspirational teachers and aspirational pupils. It's about holding the hands of those who wouldn't otherwise make it - because of the street in which they were born - to guide them into a university or career path that will lead them out of poverty and into hope.

Independent schools have been getting it right for generations, with those who leave such schools going on to the best universities, enter government, and then do everything within their power to ensure that only those who can afford a good education get one. If we are to continue the process of no academic selection for the brightest kids from the poorest backgrounds, the future remains very firmly in their hands.

No dark sarcasm in the classroom? No, not in the classroom, but in Parliament; education policy has just become another brick in the wall.

The writer is Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire and a member of the Public Policy Commission

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