National Grammar Schools Association
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A Vital Component of Diversity and Specialisation

13th October 2001

Brian Wills Pope, Chairman NGSA

The chairman of the NGSA, Brian Will Pope welcomed representatives from the regions grammar schools from across England. He warned against the threats to the schools from the Admissions document (which had not been circulated to the grammar schools), and the use of the Adjudicator. He then welcomed both our distinguished speakers.

Lord Rees-Mogg

Lord Rees-Mogg began by stating how pleased he was to be at the NGSA conference. He outlined the founding of the grammar schools after the Norman Conquest and said there was a flourishing network of early Tudor times with a broad curriculum including Latin, Greek, grammar and logic and with debates being held between schools. Many were church foundations while others were founded by local business- men. By the early Sixteenth Century there was an admirably healthy number; the act of 1547 removed property from the churches, gave it to the crown and caused a considerable hiatus in the operation of the grammar schools and some never recovered. However, some were re-endowed and there was a growth in the number of grammar schools throughout the Elizabethan period. The grammar schools recovered from a colossal crisis!

From his school, Charterhouse, Lord Rees-Mogg had gone to Oxford where he was impressed by the quality of students from the grammar schools. Numbers of grammar school students getting into Oxford and Cambridge were strong. The independent schools saw the grammar schools as a threat. The 1950's were the 'golden age' of grammar schools. The nation was recovering from the Second World War, the first scientific war where former grammar school pupils had been behind technical innovations such as radar, enigma and nuclear power. The Atlee Cabinet was grammar school dominated.

We are increasingly aware of globalisation and the need for a well-educated population to ensure success in international trade. The current movement to increase university attendance to fifty percent will not help. However, we do need to nurture creative and analytical minds. Asian cultures, whether in California or Shanghai (which the speaker had recently visited) seem able to produce talented confident people.

At the moment, theGovernment is trying to promote specialist schools but the idea that you can have specialisation in everything but academic ability is ludicrous. The brightest young people need a good academic education and the grammar schools do this best. They give a chance today, as they did in the past, to children from poor backgrounds.

Chris Woodhead, former Chief HMI

Chris Woodhead began by stating that the specialist schools are a 'fudge' to appease 'Middle England'. Can children be selected on aptitude at the age of eleven? Many are not selecting and are not really specialist schools.

He was pleased to be invited to the conference as he was a former grammar school pupil who owed a lot to this school, the Priory in Shrewsbury. His teachers cared passionately about the subjects they taught and had high expectation of their pupils. They often taught the whole class at once and their style was didactic but they had all pupils engaged and active in their learning. They were able to direct appropriate questions at their pupils. The school excelled at sport, found areas where pupils could demonstrate responsibility for themselves and others and develop culturally.

Some independent schools select their pupils, but even taking this into consideration, their performance in the league tables is far better than that of state schools as a whole; only three of the top fifty schools are state, only one of the top 100 schools is a comprehensive. The grammar schools offer opportunities for working class children. When he returned to this country, Peter Lampl was horrified that so few state school pupils won places at Oxford and Cambridge, and that is why he founded the Sutton Trust.

The Government is hostile to the grammar schools and some Labour supporters are so hostile that they cannot conduct a debate about selection in a rational manner. They cannot see that is is a valid option. In England we should be promoting parental choice and school diversity as they do in the USA with the Charter Schools.

There are two problems with the system;

An anti-intellectual orthodoxy
The nature of central and local government.

The Campaign for Learning, in a publication endorsed by David Blunkett, stated that: it wanted to equip children with 'learnacy'! It questions the value of acquiring knowledge when it is possible to find anything you wish to know in books or on the Internet. There is a lot of emphasis on 'transferable skills'; which do you need when your car breaks down?
John Abbott, when trying to define them, stated that they are, 'skills which can be easily transferred'! John MCBeath from Cambridge University states that we need 'thinking centred schools', not 'learning centred schools'. But it is impossible to have thinking taking place in a knowledge vacuum.

Grammar schools must be an oasis of sanity in the lunatic world of education that we inhabit. What we, as grammar school supporters, do is of fundamental importance not just to our schools but because we represent what education is about. We must challenge the anti-intellectual status quo, challenge ideas from the DfES, and allow Heads and Governors to develop what is best for their schools. Parental choice must become a reality.

Both speakers conducted lengthy discussions which it is not possible to report in full. However, some points brought up by the speakers and others in the hall include:

The Strength of feeling that grammar schools are unfair and promote inequality by the Government but also their need to succeed in education. There is an element of folk memory which stresses contrasts between rich and poor c.f. Dickens

Health and education are priorities and health is the bigger problem. The Government could fail to get re-elected if the health service is not sorted out but not if problems still remain in education.

Education may not be as good abroad as we are led to believe.

The learning and Skills Councils may be a threat as they would rather have coherent post-16 structures which they believe are most cost effective.

The emotive language used by those opposed to grammar schools, both about the grammar schools and the non-selective schools.

The prejudice against good schools such as Beacon schools.

The wisdom of religious schools.

The bias of ballots - it is not possible to vote to open grammar schools.

Lord Pilkington, President NGSA

Lord Pilkington urged those attending to be wary of the power of the Adjudicators. These are political appointments and their pronouncements can only be questioned by judicial review. We must respond to the paper on Admissions. He was concerned that grammar schools were 'hiding' behind the parapet' to avoid their heads being chopped off; by failing to speak out, their feet will be chopped off! Grammar schools must not be frightened of their LEAs as there is a lot of support in the community for them,

We may be about to fight a more sinister battle that the ballots, a covert one in which there will be no prisoners taken.