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The grammar school debate

With the opening of England’s first new grammar school in 50 years, the debate around these selective institutions is heating up.

Sorry, make that the opening of an ‘annexe’ to an existing grammar school, connected to the main school building by nine miles of, well, nothing.

So, what is it about nostalgia for selective state education that has persuaded the Conservative government to hand Jeremy Corbyn this golden ticket? Opening a new grammar school has effectively provided him with ‘smoking gun’ evidence that, far from being motivated by a desire to modernise and create a more egalitarian society, the Tories are as elitist as ever.

On the subject, columnist Deborah Orr ardently put forward her view that: “[The grammar school system] assumes that only very special people deserve entry into the hallowed halls of the professional class – people who have passed a written test proving themselves to be worthy of grooming for social-mobility greatness.”[1]

Ms Orr then went even further, arguing that “grammar schools exist to pluck deserving children from the ghastly clutches of ‘ordinary’”, and therefore “make actual society more like the entirely imaginary society that Conservatives so ardently cleave to, in which poor people are thick and rich people are clever”. (Deborah Orr, para.8)

It’s a sentiment that seems to cut to the heart of this often emotive debate. Ultimately, with their similarity to public schools (“crests, uniforms, prize-givings and house systems”),[2] grammar schools aren’t just benevolent “engines of social mobility”, they are another example of how the upper-class supposedly does things better.

With their claims that they allow disadvantaged children, by virtue of their innate intelligence, to access an excellent education, grammar schools are a symbol of both egalitarianism and inequality. They reinforce that working class kids can be ‘made good’, like their alumni which includes David Attenborough, Alan Bennett, Margaret Thatcher and Mick Jagger. But the flipside of this coin is that their existence is made necessary by the tacit suggestion that, without a grammar school, these talents would be left behind, swept away by the drudgery of an underprivileged life.

While arguably everyone in the country would agree with selective education to some extent (no one wants to visit a hospital staffed by doctors who didn’t have to sit exams and prove their academic mettle both before and during their university education), grammar schools aren’t just ‘selective’ schools. They suggest that the government is accepting the inevitable, that some pupils will not be given access to an excellent, all-round education. That some pupils are collateral, destined to fail.

That may be true, but it shouldn’t be a self-fulfilling prophecy that the government themselves buy-into and perpetuate.

In a world so different from the one in which grammar schools were first established, it’s arguable that this acceptance of educational ‘failure’ isn’t a mentality we should be giving in to. Stream classes, by all means, but make sure this is done in such a way that encourages children to strive to do better and excel in whatever field, academic or otherwise, that they wish to.

The statistics don’t fall in favour of grammar schools’ supposed provision of academic excellence either. Figures reveal that, as late as 1965, only six percent of pupils were achieving three A-levels. This lack of academic results reflects that grammar schools originated in a world of post-war optimism. They were intended to be holistic institutions as much as educational ones, a reality reinforced by the fact that part of their initial mandate was simply to ensure children were not “infested with vermin or in a foul condition”. (Sean Coughlan, para.41)

Buoyed by a society re-writing convention and moving away from an old-world order, grammar schools fitted well into an economy where only a small number of professions required university degrees for entry. In fact, when the 1944 Education Act was passed, there were people in Cabinet who had “left school at the age of 11”. (Sean Coughlan, para.42)

So, in a job market where there were many jobs available to the supposedly ‘uneducated’, grammar schools just cemented the inevitability of university entrance earlier than would have been. That’s not the society we live in now. With a stalling economy “dependent on high-skilled industries”, there’s no room to accept that 80 percent of the population don’t particularly need good academic qualifications to succeed in finding good employment.[3]

Perhaps the strange contradictions of the post-war world, where the social order was going to be completely turned on its head and yet, simultaneously, less than 20 percent of the working-classes were singled out for higher academic education, belong to that historical world. Creating more opportunities for the 18 percent of British pupils eligible for Free School Meals, along with all their counterparts, isn’t about funnelling pupils into specific groups at the age of 11. (Jon Boulton, para.4) It’s about providing all children and young people with a high-quality education, encouraging them to succeed in their chosen area, and ensuring that a buoyant economy can ensure them employment for their working lives.

That’s something that’s not as simple as opening a new grammar school, sorry, ‘annexe’.

[1] Deborah Orr (2015) ‘The argument about grammar schools is one the left can easily win’, para.4 <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/17/the-argument-about-grammar-schools-is-one-the-left-can-easily-win> [Accessed: 19 October 2015]

[2] Sean Coughlan (2015) ‘The persistent appeal of grammar schools’, para.24 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-30483031> [Accessed: 19 October 2015]

[3] Jon Boulton (2013) ‘The argument against grammar schools’, para.6 <http://parliamentstreet.org/blog/2013/case-grammar-schools/> [Accessed: 19 October 2015]

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