Leading Article: Grammar schools as a springboard to power

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A SOCIAL scientist's role is often to tabulate social changes widely assumed to have taken place. So it is not surprising, but is encouraging, to learn from Professor Leslie Hannah of the London School of Economics that a big shift has taken place in the past 15 years at the top of Britain's leading 50 companies. In a lecture this week to the Foundation for Manufacturing and Industry, Professor Hannah revealed that whereas in 1979 only 14 of the companies' chairmen had been educated at state schools, their number this year has risen to 29, while those from fee-paying schools sank to 15.

This reversal was attributed by the chairman of the lecture, Nigel Rudd of Williams Holdings (ex- Bemrose Grammar School, Derby), to the excellence of this country's grammar schools in the post-war era. Precisely the same phenomenon can be seen in the present Cabinet, at least half of whose members went to state schools, including the Prime Minister (Rutlish GS), Kenneth Clarke (Nottingham High School), and Michael Howard (Llanelli GS); and little more than a handful went to well-known public schools: Douglas Hurd (Eton), William Waldegrave (Winchester), Peter Brooke (Marlborough), Ian Lang, (Rugby), Sir Patrick Mayhew (Tonbridge) and Michael Heseltine (Shrewsbury).

Most of these, in boardroom and Cabinet alike, would have been at school in the Fifties and Sixties. Even in 1970, the number of grammar schools stood at just over 700, still roughly a third of all secondary schools. It has now shrunk to 157. On the credit side of the ledger, there has been an explosion in the number of universities and of those attending them in the years since those very successful grammar- school products attended Oxbridge and the LSE.

A question suggests itself: 15 years hence, will the combination of comprehensive secondary education and non-Oxbridge universities deliver a higher or lower proportion than now of state-educated men and women into boardrooms and the Cabinet? A future LSE professor may be able to show whether the high educational standards of the old grammar schools followed by the sociability and contact-making attributes of the Oxbridge collegiate system provided - all too briefly - a unique lift for the bright, ambitious offspring of under-privileged parents.