Leading article: Lessons still to be learnt from grammar schools

 

Share
Related Topics

Last week, it was the Education Secretary, Michael Gove.

Yesterday, it was the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and today it will be the Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg. All, in their different ways, are seeking a solution to one of today's most pressing conundrums: how to reverse this country's shocking and stubborn decline in social mobility. Yet all, in their different ways, are also fighting shy of an obvious answer: taking another look at grammar schools and selection according to academic ability.

It is easy – especially for those who benefited from them – to wax nostalgic about grammar schools. They extended opportunities to bright children from modest backgrounds, children whose families in most cases not only lacked the means for private school fees, but would never have dreamt of paying. Many of those children rose to become the senior professionals – the politicians, academics, civil servants, scientists – of the latter 20th century. They made the country's premier universities, and Parliament, more socially mixed than they were before and probably have been since.

But as Mr Gove pointed out, the dominance now exercised by those educated privately constitutes "a deep problem" in our society. It simply cannot be that those whose parents paid for their schooling are so much better and brighter than the state-educated majority. It can be, regrettably, that many of them enjoyed a better education, or at least one that equipped them better to advance in post-school life.

It could be objected that by no means everyone aspires to go to Oxbridge or become a senior judge, an ambassador, or even prime minister. But the persistence of the old school tie in these fields – despite often heroic efforts to broaden entry – strongly suggests that the pool of those who might harbour such ambitions is far too narrow. Grammar schools helped to widen that pool. But progress has not been maintained. Comprehensives were introduced with the best of intentions and have notched up successes. But they are failing the very pupils so well served by grammar schools: academically gifted children from poorer families, who now have no escape from the diktat of house prices and catchment areas.

The introduction of academies by New Labour, which has been accelerated by the Coalition and supplemented by free schools, was an admission that comprehensive schools were not always and everywhere the answer. Yet all the experimentation now in train eschews the one thing many parents most crave: selection by academic – as opposed to musical, artistic or sporting – ability. This remains taboo, so much so that the chief objection voiced by opponents of free schools is that they will become grammar schools by another name.

There was, of course, a double downside to grammar schools: rigid selection at 11, which branded a majority of pupils failures, and the substandard education at many, though far from all, secondary moderns. This shows what else needs to be done if grammar schools are to return: perhaps a higher age for selection, with the flexibility to transfer at any age, and a radical improvement in the quality of technical and vocational education, so that pupils leave with recognised, and respected, qualifications.

That Britain needs to increase social mobility, and urgently, should go without saying. The issue is not just one of social justice and cohesion – though these are important in themselves – but one of squandered talent and unfulfilled lives. For the sake of those who would surely benefit from a more academic education, the ban on opening new grammar schools and selection by academic ability should be revisited.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
President Barack Obama walks with U.S. Secret Service agents to Air Force One at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, Calif., May 8, 2014.  

Obama's Secret Service has become sloppy with its delusions of Hollywood grandeur

David Usborne
Chancellor George Osborne got a standing ovation from the Tories for a package of tough measures  

The Conservative party would have us believe that the poor deserve to be punished

Andreas Whittam Smith
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?