National Grammar Schools Association
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Letter to David Cameron

22 September 2008

David Cameron MP,
Leader of the Conservative Party,
The House of Commons,

London SW1A OAA.

Dear Mr Cameron,

On reading your remarks on education in Cameron on Cameron,one can only conclude that you are not fully aware of their profoundly depressing effect on the parents of “Middle England”. Any failure to boldly address the current disastrous state of education in the United Kingdom in the interests of electoral success may result not only in division within the Conservative Party,  but an irreversible decline in the future world-status of the country.

The policy of merely tolerating the existing grammar schools is at best an indication that they do not enjoy the Party’s support and at worst a signal to their critics that they are vulnerable to ongoing attack. Against the stated wishes of the majority in a massive public consultation,  the 69 grammar schools in Northern Ireland face the prospect of abolition next year.

Grammar schools in England are similarly threatened, but in a less confrontational manner. Successful grammar schools are being federated (or merged);  their pupil intakes are being reduced; their budgets are being reduced;  and in some cases taxpayers' money is being used to 'poach' their headteachers to other, less academically successful schools.

Examples include Boston Grammar School for boys and Boston High School for girls in Conservative-controlled Lincolnshire, where it is planned that the two grammar schools (that have already been merged into a 'hard' federation with a single governing body and a single headteacher) will become one school, on a single site, and their joint admissions will be reduced from 232 each year to around 150. And Chatham House Grammar School for boys and Clarendon House Grammar School for girls in Conservative-controlled Kent, which will also become one, with joint admissions reduced from 225 each year to 180. (Is this supposed to help the nearby Marlowe Academy where, despite massive public expenditure, in 2007 only 7% of  pupils achieved 5 or more A*-C GCSEs including English and maths?)

None of these schools, it could be argued, would be so open to attack were it not for the weakness of official Conservative support. Grassroots Conservative and other support for grammar schools is very strong (see results from opinion polls, item 4 on attached page),  but weak and conflicting messages from Conservative Party leaders at both national and local level are a serious threat to many fine schools. On the issue of parental choice, why, if legislation enables parents to ballot to close a grammar school, does it not also allow parents to open one, either in place of an existing comprehensive, or in an area where no grammar schools exist?  Why are parents not allowed a ballot to close, say, a failing comprehensive, if that is what they want? 

In an effort to clarify the issues and to assist understanding of why current Conservative party policy appears at odds with the wishes of the vast majority of aspirational parents, your educational advisors may care to consider the following questions before recommending policies that may do little to reverse the educational decline. It is common case that there not enough good schools, but how does the denial of choice and  undermining  some of the best performing state  schools assist the improvement of those schools that are patently failing under the existing system? 

Your comment that “no one has set up any grammar schools even during the 18 years of Conservative government” is disingenuous. In June 2008, the Department for Children Schools and Families published data showing that there are now almost 30,000 more pupils in England’s 164 grammar schools than there were in 1997.

This figure merely indicates the number who were successful in finding a place within existing grammar schools; the untapped number is undoubtedly many times greater.  Moreover, the increase in the number of pupils in grammar schools equates to some 30 new schools (Daily Mail, 27 June 2008), even though the Labour Party has deliberately denied the opportunity for anyone to open a new grammar school. These additional entrants indicate massive demand which, it appears, the Conservative Party, along with the Labour Party, are now at pains to deny. 

Arguments about the return of the 11-plus are a red herring. It is not suggested that we go back to a compulsory high-stakes 11-plus. Sitting the 11-plus test for a place in a grammar is now a voluntary choice for those parents fortunate enough to live in areas where it  is an available option. Either the Conservative party believes in parental choice or it does not. If it believes in choice, then it is for parents, not parties or a coterie of their advisors, to decide whether particular choices should be offered or denied.

Some of your comments seem at odds with each other. All would agree that  "the real challenge is how to improve opportunities and schools for everybody” and that “it’s good for kids to be taught at the right level for their ability”. Yet you state “we don’t think selection between schools is the right way forward”. Who represents the "we"? It is certainly not the parents who are effectively denied the choice of selecting a school that they believe to be at the right level for their child’s ability. The parents of the 30,000 extra entrants to the grammar schools since 1997 have demonstrated what “they” as parents think.

You describe Mossbourne Academy in Hackney as a “fantastic school”. Yet it is a selective school, albeit on a different basis from that of a grammar school. While Mossbourne’s stated aim is to ensure that it admits pupils across the ability range, all applicant children are required to attend on a Saturday morning for a lengthy period of  testing and two thirds of all applicants are rejected. Why should this process be more acceptable than taking a voluntary test for a chance to attend an established grammar school with a record of academic achievement?

In 2006, pupils in England’s 164 grammar schools produced more than half the total number of A grade A-levels in more difficult subjects such as chemistry, physics, mathematics and modern languages produced by pupils  in perhaps 2,000 comprehensive schools. Do so few very bright youngsters live in two thirds of the country that has no grammar schools?  Or have the brightest young people in those areas been denied the opportunity to excel?

You note that “although we (in west Oxfordshire) are quite a wealthy area, our results are not nearly as good as they should be.” Could this be because, despite its comparative wealth, Oxfordshire has no publicly funded grammar schools to offer competition to its long-established comprehensive system? The same comment may also be made about the below average results in Nick Gibbs’ entirely comprehensive area.

While you claim that “the comprehensive ideal is a noble thing", its out-workings are far from inspiring. A Daily Telegraph list (14 August 2008) of the ten areas with the lowest proportion  of pupils taking A- levels reveals that all have been totally comprehensive for many years and collectively boast not a single grammar school. While it is agreed that parties cannot compel people to make choices, politicians can effectively deny them choices to make – a charge that some now levy against the Conservative Party.

Being a “good” Conservative should include care for the less fortunate members of society by offering them equality of opportunity through the medium of education. Even New Labour's Lord Adonis now accepts that the comprehensive system, based on the essentially Marxist principle of equality of results, has significantly reduced the rate of upward social mobility. All statistical evidence demonstrates and confirms the opinions of leading university academics that the grammar schools have historically offered a ladder of opportunity to children from lower income groups whose families could not afford the fees of independent schools. In Northern Ireland, which has a system of differentiated education consisting of grammar schools, secondary moderns and no independent schools,  GCSE and A-level results have consistently topped those in England. Moreover, official statistics confirm that Northern Ireland sends 42% of students from the lower income groups  to university,  compared with only  28% from similar income groups in England.

In late summer 2007,  you told a Conservative meeting in North Yorkshire that "We (the Conservative Party?) love grammar schools.” Yet many parents still await some confirmation of this affection in the form of policy statements.  During eighteen years of Conservative government (1979-97), little or nothing was done to redress the destruction of the grammar schools initiated by the Labour Party and with it the consequent decline in standards in education in England. This decline has accelerated under Labour despite the lowering of standards and the massaging of results. If this decline is to be halted, let alone reversed, something more than tinkering is required. On their record so far, academies may improve, but will not resolve, the educational problems we face. Only competition between schools and between genuinely diverse systems/types of school with parents permitted to choose can do that. 

For the Conservative Party to deny genuine parental choice is a betrayal of succeeding generations and an ongoing dissipation of the nation’s intellectual capital The answer is to listen to the people and to provide them with the choices they demonstrably wish to make, rather than simply to hear the siren voices of ideologues who claim to be educational experts.

Yours sincerely,
Robert McCartney QC