Time to bring back grammar schools?

And the 11-plus? And secondary moderns? Judith Judd and Fran Abrams report on Mr Major's pet project

Judith Judd,Fran Abrams
Saturday 22 June 1996 23:02

Andy Dransfield is not a man who gives up easily. He wanted his son, John, to go to a grammar school but the one nearest to his Milton Keynes home was in Buckingham, 15 miles away, and the local authority would not let John make the journey. Mr Dransfield decided to campaign for such a school in his home town. It has been a long struggle - John is 26 now - but at last his father scents victory.

After years of delay, Buckinghamshire County Council has voted to build a grammar school in the town. The fight is not over - Milton Keynes Borough Council, due to take over education as a new authority next year, is opposing it in the courts. But Mr Dransfield has a new and powerful ally: the Prime Minister.

Is Mr Dransfield alone? John Major thinks not. Last September he said he wanted to make it easier for schools to select pupils, and since then the Downing Street policy unit has broadcast his wish to put a grammar school in every town. On Tuesday, the Government publishes a White Paper which, it claims, will make it possible to achieve the Prime Minister's aim.

Like warm beer, spinsters cycling to church and cricket on the village green, grammar schools are part of the English nostalgia the Prime Minister likes to encourage. As he sees it, most voters think the country went to the dogs in the 1960s. What better way of restoring pre-permissive innocence than by bringing back the grammar schools? This, Mr Major thinks, is a potential election-winner.

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, is not so sure. She told the Independent soon after she was appointed: "I am much more interested in specialist schools than in selective schools." As the wife of a former head teacher and a champion of Norfolk comprehensive schools, she does not think that grammar and secondary modern schools will automatically raise standards.

There have been tussles behind the scenes. Mrs Shephard and her department wanted the White Paper to contain a series of options; Downing Street insisted that it should contain a definite scheme. Whispers reached right- wing newspapers that Mrs Shephard was dragging her heels. Vicious profiles of her appeared. Downing Street won.

THE idea of bringing back grammar schools will strike a chord with many people. Their history goes back to the 14th century. A strict academic education - originally reading, writing and Latin - went hand-in-hand with an opportunity for the poor and clever to rise to better things. In Shakespeare's day, according to the historian G M Trevelyan, "clever boys of the most various ranks of society received a good Latin education, sharing the benches and floggings of the grammar school". Only later did the great public schools emerge and, with them, class segregation. Some of those schools, such as Winchester, had started out as grammar schools.

At the end of the 19th century grammar schools were mainly fee-paying, but the advent of local authorities brought a change. Grammar schools could receive public money for educating bright boys from poor backgrounds.

The numbers involved were small. It was not until after the Second World War that thegrammar school became the main agent of social mobility. The 1944 Education Act had established three types of school: grammar, secondary modern and technical. Entry to the grammar school was by 11- plus examination. Harold Wilson, one of the working-class boys who climbed the social ladder through a grammar school, said later that they would be abolished "over my dead body". Another, Professor Alan Smithers, professor of policy research at Brunel University, said: "It opened up unthought- of opportunities for people like myself. By passing the 11-plus I was given an excellent education. The trouble was with the 80 per cent or so who failed the exam."

The idea, in the words of the 1944 Act, was that children would be allocated to schools according to ability and aptitude. Secondary modern schools were not supposed to be inferior, just different. But parents soon began to see them as second-rate, and with justification. (Technical schools, because of lack of will and lack of cash, never happened.) Grammar school pupils took O-levels but there were, at first, no public exams for secondary modern school pupils. The grammar schools also had better buildings, more cash and better-qualified teachers.

By the 1960s the unfairness of the selective system was widely recognised. Children's chances of success varied sharply according to where they lived: in Wales as many as 30 per cent went to grammar school, whereas in some parts of the Home Counties the proportion was as low as 10 per cent. The 11-plus exam was seen as cruel and hopelessly flawed. Though many children from poor homes did make it to grammar school, those from middle-class backgrounds had a much better chance of passing.

Tests of National Service recruits found that thousands of ex-secondary modern pupils were highly intelligent; yet they had left school early, without qualifications and prospects. One piece of research showed that if the same set of children sat the same test in two consecutive weeks, different children passed.

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, another working- class 11-plus success, said: "The English test was all about cliches. You had to fill in the blank in 'as old as the ...'. Then, when you got to grammar school, they told you to stop using cliches." There was also the emotional side: siblings who had to go to different schools, friends divided for ever by the 11-plus. As one critic put it, parents watched the miracle of growth and development for 11 years. Then, one day, a letter came from school telling them the miracle was over.

In 1965, Harold Wilson's Labour government "invited" local authorities to draw up schemes for comprehensives. Significantly, the real pressure for change came not from the working classes but from middle-class parents who dreaded the stigma of 11-plus failure. Before Wilson acted - arguing that comprehensives would give every child a grammar school education - some Tory-controlled councils, such as Leicestershire, had already abolished selection.

The anti-selection movement gathered such momentum that even Margaret Thatcher, as Secretary of State for Education from 1970 to 1974, could not stop it. She closed more grammar schools than any other minister. There are now only 160 grammar schools left.

WHEN Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, however, disillusionment with comprehensives had already begun. Since then, Conservative local authorities have made a number of attempts to re-introduce selection. All have failed. And the reason is one which Mr Major should note carefully: they did not win the support of parents.

Conservative voters in leafy suburbs are often quite happy with their cosy, middle-class comprehensive schools. The "bad" comprehensives, with all the problems, are in the inner cities, where Labour voters live.

This is one of the central arguments against comprehensives. Grammar schools allowed some bright children from poor homes to move out of their social milieu. Comprehensives, on the other hand, allow the well-heeled to buy into the best schools by moving house while children from poor families stay exactly where they are. So when Conservative councillors in the West Midlands borough of Solihull tried to bring back selection in the 1980s, they argued that it would be more equitable. It would allow schools to choose pupils on merit rather than allowing parents to choose schools on the basis of wealth.

The residents of comfortable Dorridge and Balsall Common were enraged. They did not want their local comprehensive turned into a grammar school for which their children would have to compete. They took to the streets with placards. The Conservative chairman of education, Michael Ellis, observed: "There is nothing more nauseating than the privileged acting in defence of their privileges." Dog dirt was posted through his letter box, and it was not long before he resigned. One by one the members of the Conservative group withdrew their support, and the plan was abandoned. Geoffrey Wright, who succeeded Mr Ellis as chairman, said the council received little support from the Conservative government at the time. "I found that extremely disappointing," he said, "particularly in the light of what is current at the moment. Maybe they didn't think it was a battleground worth fighting on at the time." Although he still supports selection, he is not sure the new White Paper will achieve its aims. "I think it will be difficult to gain public support to change the system. When you come down to the actual realities, a general feeling of support could tend to be overwhelmed by local factors."

Solihull is not the only place where parents have resisted a return to selection. In Lincoln in 1993, an attempt to turn a city school into a grammar led to protests. At just four days' notice, 800 people packed two meetings attacking the plan. The scheme was withdrawn.

However, such resistance has not prevented a gradual growth of selection by the back door. The Government has supported "choice and diversity" rather than a return to the 11-plus, and has encouraged some schools to become technology colleges or to specialise in languages or sports. There are now 274 of these. More than 1,000 schools have opted out of local authority control, and a handful of these have chosen to select a proportion of their intake by academic ability. Conservatives are divided about whether they want a full-scale return to selection or simply a continuation of the slightly more laissez-faire approach of recent years.

DO the old arguments against selection still hold? Would a new generation of secondary moderns, for example, consign children to lifelong failure? John Marks, a member of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and a long-term supporter of selection, argues not. According to his research, a quarter of the country's remaining secondary moderns have better GCSE results than the average comprehensive.

"What I am arguing," he said, "is that the evidence shows that selection is better for all. It isn't a matter of writing off most of the population."

But most other academics question that. Donald Hirsch, author of several books on comparative education, said: "The real problem we have in this country is that the bottom half of children are not doing very well. I don't see how taking the bright children out of a run-down inner-city comprehensive is going to improve things for the rest. Even medium comprehensives will be in danger of sinking."

He says that international comparisons give mixed results. Some countries with comprehensive systems, such as Finland and Sweden, come out well on measures of pupil achievement. Others, such as Norway, Spain and Portugal, come near the bottom of the international league table. Countries with selective systems, such as Germany and the Netherlands, come in the middle - but there is no evidence that they produce disproportionate numbers of failures.

In any case, Mr Hirsch said, most industrialised countries leave selection or streaming later, until 15 or 16. Most experts agree that if we have to select pupils we should leave it as late as possible. Professor Peter Mortimore, director of London University's Institute of Education, said: "Everything we know about intelligence suggests that it can't be identified early and that people change. The longer you leave it, the less damaging the psychological effect and the more chance there is that it will be based on people's talent and motivation rather than their background."

The advantage of selecting children later is that it can probably be done by parental and pupil choice rather than a test. Most authorities which retain grammar schools still use an updated version of the 11-plus, including IQ tests whose value has long been questioned.

Professor Smithers said: "I would prefer the root and branch reform of all education. I would see the age of transfer to different types of school as being 14. We should create a system in response to pupils' choices. They would move to the school of their choice. If a school was over-subscribed, the places would be allocated by drawing lots."

Even advocates of comprehensive education believe it needs reform. The Labour Party, once an unconditional supporter of comprehensives, now believes that within comprehensives, pupils should be divided into different classes according to their abilities in different subjects. The party is also keen on accelerated learning for the brightest pupils.

Professor David Reynolds, of Newcastle University's department of education, said the social changes of the past 30 years had made it harder to run comprehensives successfully. The gaps between different groups in society had widened and segregation by housing had increased. We need an experiment, he suggested, to see whether selecting children for different schools at 14 or 15 would work.

BUT if a less homogeneous society makes the comprehensives harder to run, the same is surely true of grammar schools and secondary moderns. The gap between the top and the bottom is now so wide that the grammar school tradition of levering up working-class children would founder.

The middle class is larger than in the 1950s and would easily grab all the places in grammar schools, leaving the bottom 30 per cent, the new underclass, marooned.

So is John Major right? Will legions of Andy Dransfields rise up across the land to support his call for a return to selective education? Are grammar schools really a vote-winner?

A recent Harris poll for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers showed that just over half the population - and 47 per cent of under-45s - supported a return to selection. But asked to list their priorities for education, respondents placed discipline and funding at the top - and selection in 10th place.

And whatever people say to pollsters, events in Lincoln and Solihull suggest that when it comes to specific local proposals, parents will back the comprehensive status quo. Though people grumble about comprehensives, polls show that nearly all parents are happy with the schools their children attend.

In Milton Keynes a poll found that 40 per cent of the townspeople wanted a grammar school - but 50 per cent wanted a comprehensive. That, Mr Major might say, is precisely the point: why not give them the choice? But in practice, parents understand that a comprehensive is not really a comprehensive if a grammar school is creaming off the brightest pupils.

Even Mr Dransfield is not convinced we are about to see a raft of new grammar schools. A large majority of teachers still supports comprehensives and few will want to challenge them, he says. "It's a daunting prospect, taking on the educational establishment. It's steeped in all sorts of traditions and vocabulary that a lot of parents don't understand. There's a deliberate mystique about it, and that puts people off. I don't actually see a swelling up of parental campaigns."

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