21 December 2020

The real problem with grammar schools? There aren’t enough of them


Last month, I took a look at the ‘gaping hole’ at the heart of John Bercow’s woeful article for the Guardian explaining why, after more than two decades of representing Buckingham in Parliament, he has suddenly come out against grammar schools.

Why was it, if the system was as iniquitous as he now claims, that hardly any of his constituents – save for a couple of childless Labour supporters – had ever complained to him about Buckinghamshire’s retention of the selective system?

A quick look at the data soon solved that mystery. Mimicking the outcomes of the local authority Bercow favoured, in Labour-run Luton, would have meant a substantial average fall in results for something like four in five Buckingham pupils. No wonder then that he couldn’t supply any first-hand horror stories to aid his case against grammars.

Nor was that the only area where Bercow tried to skate over troubling detail. One can understand why he might not want to mention that Holland Park, the ‘comprehensive’ to which he sends his own children, is widely renowned as the ‘socialist Eton’. But there’s less excuse, given his cracks at Michael Gove, for failing to mention that it’s actually an academy.

But beyond that, there was actually a second ‘gaping hole’ in Bercow’s argument that I didn’t even get to. He skates over it here:

“I used to subscribe to the myth that grammar schools were the great facilitator of opportunity for a bright working-class child. While that may have been true when Fred Perry – a great tennis hero of mine – went to grammar school in the 1920s, that is not the norm today.”

In a parallel universe where the former Speaker is advancing a cogent and principled argument, rather than latching on to a left-wing grift to enliven his retirement, this paragraph would lead to the very core of his case. He’s just conceded that grammar schools used to work, a dangerous admission for an enthusiast for comprehensives. So surely there must follow a compelling, structural case for why they have stopped driving social mobility and, moreover, could never do so again?

No such analysis follows. Bercow shows no interest in exploring why today’s selective schools appear to benefit the children of the well-to-do, let alone if this might be remediable. Which is perhaps not surprising, because the two biggest changes to grammar schools since the 1920s are both sweeping, centrally-mandated reforms for which the modern Bercow would almost certainly have been cheerleader-in-chief.

When his hero was at school in the 1920s, grammar schools – basically schools with an academic ethos which tended to model themselves on the great public schools – were just “one part of the highly varied education system of England and Wales”. 

This changed with the 1944 Education Act, which set up the now-infamous ‘Tripartite System’ and established the Eleven Plus as a national institution. In the post-war fashion, the Government sought to replace the untidy but organic and flexible patchwork of schools with a clean, rational, and centrally-ordered alternative.

Some of the evils of this system have been over-hyped. Too many critics of sorting children at 11 appear to forget, if they ever bothered to learn, that pupils could also sit the Twelve Plus (as I did) and the Thirteen Plus. And the drive to set up new academic schools certainly opened up more opportunities to the children of the Fifties and Sixties.

But many local authorities never set up the planned technical schools – which were unpopular with the unions – and the result was the widespread perception of a cruel best-and-the-rest divide.

Then came the closures. By the time the Conservatives finally called a halt to the anti-grammar school crusade in 1979, most had shut. I know that Bercow has strayed a long way from the righteous path of free-market economics, but the supply-and-demand implications of this ought to be obvious even to him.

First, reducing the number of places obviously intensifies the competition for those that remain, and thus sharpens the edge enjoyed by the children of sharp-elbowed parents who can offer a constructive home environment and, indeed, extra tuition.

Second, it broadens the field of challengers. My own school, Chesham High (now re-styled ‘Chesham Grammar’ – Hyacinth Bucket would approve), not only had plenty of pupils bussed over from neighbouring Hertfordshire but also, thanks to its being on the Underground network, from north London too. This huge catchment zone obviously put even more pressure on places, especially when legacy admissions (rules which favour the siblings of existing pupils) kicked in as well.

I will always be hugely grateful for this opportunity, but it isn’t difficult to see the downsides. Bright but disadvantaged kids in Chesham had to compete with more people than ever for a place in their local grammar. Similar children in London and Hertfordshire were deprived of the opportunity to attend such a school altogether.

And all of this is further compounded, if you’re worried about the socio-economic profile of today’s grammar school cohorts, by two other points. First, the flight of middle-class parents from the private sector as its fees ballooned and it set its sights on international pupils. Second, the fact that many of those places where the Eleven Plus system survived intact (thanks to lengthy court battles by the Local Education Authorities) are in true-blue shires such as Kent and, yes, Buckinghamshire.

Why do today’s grammar schools seem not to serve as the old engines of social mobility from Tory folklore? Perhaps because the Government closed most of them – and only after the post-War mania for one-size-fits-all saw a lot of the alternatives shuttered too. Allow grammar schools to expand – or better yet, open new ones in parts of the country you want to ‘level up’ – and the social mix of their pupils will change.

In other words, the central charges against today’s grammar schools are an artefact of the injuries inflicted on them by their opponents, and could be solved to a great extent by building more of them.

Just as importantly, modern grammars aren’t operating in the old tripartite system. The new model, based as it is on encouraging diversity of provision through academies and free schools, shows if anything that we’re limping back towards the “highly varied” ecosystem that prevailed before 1944. Were the Tories ever minded to complete their education revolution – and I despair of them doing so – they could take more lessons from the grammars of old, especially those that took a portion of fee-paying pupils to subsidise a better education for their poorer classmates.

A grammar school that is recognised as just one point on a spectrum of specialisation, with schools catering to many different types of pupil, is a very different thing to a grammar school surrounded only by neglected secondary moderns and their heirs, the ‘bog-standard’ comprehensive, and which serves as a sort of escape pod for a lucky few.

But it says nothing good about Bercow and his allies that their instinct in that situation is not to reform the system at large, but to sabotage the pod.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.