Privately educated Nicky Morgan claims her former boss Theresa May’s planned grammar school revolution is “weird”. Really? In case you missed it, Ms Morgan was the beneficiary of David Cameron’s extremely strange – weird, even – decision to replace Michael Gove, the original Tory educational revolutionary, with this lady who’s now contemplating her future from the backbenches.
But surely the only thing that’s weird about what Mrs May has in mind for our schools is that it has taken the Conservatives so long to re-instate what used to be the gold standard of Britain’s education system. A party that has long claimed to champion the provision of choice and opportunity has, for the best part of half a century, shamefully fallen in with the all-embracing nostrum that selective schools are bad and bog-standard comprehensives are good enough for the lower orders. Those parents, mostly middle-class, who want to see their off-spring challenged, stretched and taught properly could stump up for private schools or else move to posher areas where excellence is still sought after in state schools.
The post war baby-boomers, of modest means, saw their upwardly mobile march dramatically cut short as the Sixties with Tony Crosland’s infamous pledge – “if it’s the last thing I do I’m going to destroy every f****** grammar school in England” – become accepted as the norm across the political spectrum.
It is a policy that has seen social mobility in the UK eroded to such an extent that a public school education is increasingly the only passport required for entry to the best that life can offer. Thus, do we see boardrooms, politics, the senior ranks of the civil service and places at our top universities dominated by the products of expensive schooling. This has reached the stage, with university entrance for instance, where we’re now reduced to a form of social engineering where universities are ordered, on pain of reduced government support, to admit more students from state schools and from those from less-affluent backgrounds. Not surprisingly this has led to widespread concern that standards will inevitably fall.
But if grammar schools match the results of the independents, as they used to and assuredly will again, there will be no need for university entrance standards to be diluted.
I sincerely believe that Mrs May’s proposals deserve the widest possible support, even if I’m not sure about the sledgehammer she’s taking to private schools to force them to be more socially aware; nor about her efforts to give faith schools a new lease of life. However, the greatest challenge she faces concerns not the grammar schools she wants to set up but what the future holds for those schools which will cater for the kids for whom a purely academic education is not the answer.
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Surely the truth is that in scrapping grammars our political masters abolished the wrong schools. They should have concentrated their fire on the secondary moderns. Grammar schools didn’t fail our children but the uncared-for, underfunded secondary moderns assuredly did and is it really an exaggeration to suggest that secondary moderns by another name is what many of our comprehensives quickly became?
And so, in her determination to bring back grammars Theresa May will be able to disarm her opponents much more readily if she can demonstrate that the high schools, or whatever she chooses to call the non-academic institutions she plans, really are much more than second best; that they will be generously funded and that they will provide excellent vocational and technical schooling.
She has no easy task. Opposition to selection is entrenched, unrelenting – much of it, ironically, from people who enjoyed expensive selective education – and will get very nasty yet. But the Prime Minister and Justine Greening, her education secretary, must be prepared to repel all boarders in what will be a long campaign. The Labour and Liberal Democrat oppositionists will cause her little trouble but unfortunately educational Levellers are not confined to politicians of the Left. She will find bitter resistance from the education industry, in the civil service and in universities as well as, as Ms Morgan has shown, on her own backbenches.
I for one, wish her well, and I admit to a feeling of jealousy because if she succeeds Mrs May’s reforms will not extend to Scotland, where I live. Until comprehensivisation we had senior and junior secondaries instead of grammars and secondary moderns but they were essentially the same thing. But here, as in England, selection, was abolished long ago and we’re left with a horrible paraphrase of Henry Ford’s famous maxim, adopted by successive Scottish Governments, to the effect that “you can send your kids to any secondary school you like – as long as it’s the one we tell you to.”