Grammar schools are once again provoking intense debate. With 11,000 more places now than in 2010, critics are lining up to attack them as elitist relics that favour privileged, middle class parents who can afford tutoring to get their little darlings through the 11 plus.
That they may be, but to me, as someone educated at a bog-standard comp and then an FE college before securing a place at Manchester University, the debate currently raging about them is a sterile one. It fails to encompass the biggest problem with the British education system: Private schools.
These institutions – I’m going to refer to them as “private” rather than “public” – do more than anything else to cement the system of wealth-based apartheid endemic to British society.
No less an authority than John le Carre, an alumnus of Sherborne and former master at Eton College, later attended by David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, launched a searing critique of the real divide in the British education system in an afterword to a recent Penguin edition of A Murder of Quality.
He set his second novel, published in 1962, in a fictional private school. Unusually for the master of the espionage genre, it is a more or less conventional whodunnit, that nonetheless serves as a harsh critique of the system and its divisiveness.
In his contemporary afterword he fulminated: “Among our European partners and competitors we must surely be unique in providing an educational gravy train that enables a self-selected few to arrive at the top of the social ladder without the smallest notion of how the other ninety-odd per cent live, work, skimp and strive.”
The truth of that statement can be seen in the behaviour of the three aforementioned rich posh boys, they have combined to send Britain to war with itself, safe in the knowledge that their wealth will shield themselves and their children from the consequences of their actions, however bad they might be.
The same is true of their chums, who dominate in the arts, the media, the senior levels of the civil service, the top executive roles in business, and the law.
If grammar schools are unfair, what does that say of the private schools that, as le Carre pointed out, provide a passport to British society’s club class from which the rest of us are excluded? There are those who argue that a reformed system of grammar school education could play a role in helping to counter it.
Chris Blackhurst, my old editor, and a grammar school boy himself, is one of them.
In a column for The Independent, he accepted that the old system that consigned those who failed the 11 plus to secondary modern schools, as was the case with his sister, was “cruel and unfair”, a point movingly made by Ellie Fry on these pages earlier this week.
But he argued that by the 1970s it had at least started to produce state educated prime ministers; like Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Ted Heath, while helping people such as himself to excel in other fields too. In his view, a reformed system could serve as a means of attacking an “ever-increasing polarisation” that has led to “immobility and stagnation”.
Alternatively, you could just turn the idea on its head and, instead of creating more grammar schools, simply remove the private ones and follow the lead of successful countries with single-tier education systems. It wouldn’t deliver equality. Pushy parents would still use their financial clout to buy homes in leafy suburbs to get into the catchment areas of top ranked schools, as they do now. But as le Carre argued: “In a single education system there is a shaking down and, however qualified, an essential sense of fairness.”
You might also do away with the notion of Etonian first, citizen second, that has contributed so much to the country’s current, deeply troubled, impasse. And just imagine the reaction of influential people with a stake in a public education system to the suggestion of school funding cuts. Such a policy would become all but impossible to contemplate, to the benefit of all.
Surely Jeremy Corbyn, the man who says he’s “for the many”, is on the case?
Only up to a point. The last Labour manifesto promised a reversal of Theresa May’s policy of increasing grammar school places.
But the most radical reform to private schools put forward was the suggestion of removing the VAT exemption on their fees – which it’s true is an absurdity – to pay for free school meals for all. There was no mention made of removing the enormous subsidy they get from the taxpayer through enjoying charitable states.
Corbynite Labour has called for, among other things, nationalisation of the rail and water industries. But nationalising Eton, or Harrow, or Jeremy Hunt’s Charterhouse? Um, no, despite the good that would come from allowing a more diverse student base into their hallowed halls.
Perhaps that’s because there are quite a few posh boys in his orbit. Perhaps it’s because his radicalism only goes as far as taking on the easy targets. Perhaps it’s because there are too few like le Carre, who recognise the iniquities in the current system despite having benefited from it, and who are willing to call it out.
Grammar schools? If they contribute to the inequality and division that plague society with their tutored blazer-wearing, middle-class students, they are far more symptom than cause. For the latter, you have to look up the road to where the kids wear top hats and tails.
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