National Grammar Schools Association
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Summer 2015

Newsletter of the National Grammar Schools Association

The grammar school issue a post-election review

1. Those parents who believe that the principle of selective education and the grammar schools which provided, deliver the best form of education for academically inclined children, maybe subconsciously encouraged by the success of the Conservative party in forming a majority government. But is any optimism the product of nostalgia for Conservative policies of the past, or is it based on some genuine prospect of a return to former core values of conservatism? Some political commentators suggest that the party’s success in the election was attributable to a lessening of David Cameron’s modernist zeal and a campaign reflecting some of the more traditional aspects of Conservative thinking.

2. In 2007 when the party divided over the grammar school issue David Cameron declined to hear calls to “bring back grammars” and accused its supporters of naivety and alleged (wrongly in my opinion) that the grammar school system had been abandoned in most of the country because the 11+ was unpopular with parents. From then on the Conservative party appeared to join the ranks of grammar school opponents. This change in policy did little to remove commitment of the substantial number of MPs who continue to believe, from personal experience, in the benefits of selective education as an effective mechanism for upward social mobility. They included Graham Brady a former front bench spokesman and new chairman of the influential 1922 committee of Conservative backbenchers as well as David Davies a former candidate for the party leadership, now joined by Boris Johnson who has publicly expressed support for grammar schools. Among others who have less closely indicated support are the Home Secretary Theresa May and Michael Fallon the Defence Secretary who have both declared backing for grammar school satellite extensions in their constituencies.

3. This is an issue upon which Nicky Morgan the education minister is going to have to make a decision relating to the application by Weald of Kent girls Grammar School for a satellite extension in Sevenoaks, 9 miles away from the present school at Tonbridge. Contrary to David Cameron’s opinion on the unpopularity of selecting testing the number of parents entering their children for grammar schools has been increasing even under Labour. Government figures in 2008 show that between 2002 and 2008 the grammar school population had increased by 30,000 the equivalent of some 30 new grammar schools and this increase was only in the remaining 164 grammar schools in England. Some grammar schools with an annual intake of 180 pupils having up to 1500 applicants competing for a place. Three opinion polls carried out on behalf of the NGSA in 2010 (OM), 2013 (YouGov) and April 2015 (ComRes) show a substantial majority support across all stratas of society not only for the retention of the existing 164 grammar schools but significantly for the opening of NEW grammar schools in areas where none presently exist.

4. Despite pressure from Graham Brady, David Davies and others for a clear commitment in the election manifesto to reverse the Labour Party’s 1998 education act prohibition on the opening of grammar schools, this was unsuccessful. In an open letter to David Cameron during the election campaign the writer asked for confirmation of the party’s position on the future security of the existing grammar schools and the issue of opening new ones. I received a reply on his behalf from Abigail Green political correspondence manager as follows :

“While we support the on-going role of grammar schools where they exist and will not abolish them, legislation prohibits the establishment of new grammar schools and we have been clear that this will not change”.

While this declaration is unequivocal in tone, it was made during the election campaign and a time when political and electoral considerations were paramount including the possibility of another coalition. Post-election party unity particularly among backbenchers may be a more telling factor. It is not without significance that the PM’s first post-election meeting was with Graham Brady chairman of the 1922 committee.

5. Analysis of Abigail greens statement exposes both a lack of principle and logic in Conservative policy. Presently the 164 existing grammar schools cover only about one quarter of England’s local education authorities. In the remaining three quarters there are no grammar schools. Paradoxically disadvantaged children whom the PM is pledged to help and to render more aspirational in outlook are those who suffer most from the absence of a local grammar school.

6. Consider the case of disadvantaged but aspirational parents with a child who would clearly benefit from an academically weighted education but living in an area where there is no grammar school. An independent school is clearly not an option and the best comprehensive is situated in the area where the parents could not afford to live. In such a case parental choice is severely curtailed. The child’s educational career is often determined by attendance of the nearest, perhaps modestly performing, comprehensive with a limited range of subjects that may not include physics, higher maths or a modern language. Critics who castigate the existing grammar schools as “being stuffed with middle-class children” seldom mention that in three quarters of England where there are none they are not available to be stuffed with able children from any strata of society!

7. The grammar school critics who advocate that they should contain a higher percentage of children on free school meals failed to appreciate that they are tacitly accepting that grammar schools are good schools that provide a ladder for upward social mobility. Free school meals in any event only provide a crude assessment of whether or not a child is likely to benefit from an academic form of education. Indeed all it determines is that the child’s family suffer economic detriment to the extent that it testifies this particular state benefit. It offers little or no guidance as to the child’s suitability for a grammar school education. The percentages of such children who attend a grammar school are there not because they are on free school meals but because they have passed a selective test that demonstrates their entitlement to be there. Other factors to be taken into account are aspirational parents who do not claim free meals believing that it may stigmatise their child, teachers trained in a comprehensive ideology who do not encourage grammar school application and parents who are indifferent to the benefits of an academic education.

8. The central basis of the Butler reforms in 1944 was equality of opportunity for all based on merit, but as Lord Adonis former Labour spokesman on education has pointed out the effect of the comprehensive system has been to replace selection on merit with selection based on money and postcode. Successful comprehensive schools are generally situated in areas of relative affluence and the pupils reflect their often middle-class background. Such schools both in their curriculum and discipline display a similarity to grammar schools and their pupils mirror this in the respect shown to both teachers and parental guidance and authority. This is reflected in their interest in subjects required by the professions. It is no coincidence that such comprehensive schools are high on the list of those schools with the lowest number of free school meals pupils despite, unlike the selective grammars, having an “all ability” admission policy.

9. One of the major reasons for the middle class majority in the grammar schools is the paucity of places exacerbated by the statutory prohibition. While there are aspirational parents in all levels of society who see education as the ladder to professional careers and upward social mobility there is simply a higher percentage of them in the middle and professional classes. Even without coaching children from those sections have inherent advantages in a selective system. Exposure to books , vocabulary, travel and parental interest and concern all contribute to their success rate and provide an inbuilt advantage in the competition for a limited number of grammar school places. As one American educationalist observed such children may even survive a poor system of education, but if such children with non-aspirational or indifferent parents are not taught well and inspired in school they may not be taught at all. A social environment of pop entertainment, celebrity and sport mitigates against interest in academic subjects upon which the professions depend.

10. The major answer is to provide more grammar school places by opening new ones and citing them not in the leafy lanes of suburbia or rural England, but in areas of ordinary working class and ethnic communities. These new grammar schools should have a catchment area sufficient to secure enough pupils who would benefit from a more academic form of education. Close liaison with feeder primary schools should be formed to encourage local parents and teachers to identify, prepare and enter the selective process of grammar school admission. Nothing would be more valuable in encouraging parental ambition and a culture of aspiration in the respective catchment areas.

11. I can speak from personal experience that such a process can and does work. In 1948 the Butler reforms were adopted in Northern Ireland whereby children from all classes could attend a grammar school for free. As the youngest of eight children from a working class family in a Belfast backstreet; on passing the 11+ I went to the first locally maintained grammar school along with about 300 others not one of whom came from a middle-class family, but from the back streets of Belfast. Within 150 yards of my home there were 12 or more children who progressed to a grammar school. Today Grosvenor Grammar where my wife was also a pupil and where she has been a governor for some 20 years still has a pupil population that claims at least 60% of children from the artisan and lower income groups for whom it provides a quality education that sends 20 students to the mainland’s leading universities.

12. I return to my analysis of current conservative party policy on education which lives on in the straitjacket of Labour’s statist control and where education remains a tool in a process of social engineering. The purpose of a system of education is not to advance any political social or ideological objectives but to educate each child in a manner most suitable to promote that Child’s gifts and ability. The assault by the Labour party on the grammar school was more the product of ideology than education. It adopted many of the principles of American progressive education aimed at a child centred system that reduced the teacher from a figure of authority guiding and transmitting knowledge to that of a mere facilitator on the child’s educational self-mentored journey. Education became enmeshed in political ideology and electoral issues which clouded its essential purpose, reduced its quality, restricted its teaching and prejudiced its pupils. Abigail Green’s statement of conservative policy demonstrates the party’s failure to free itself from the legacy of Labour’s ideology based not on competition or excellence or merit but on the Marxist principle of equality of results, praises for all and a consequent accelerating decline in Britain’s world ranking in quality of education.

13. Where is the principle or logic in creating more grammar school places in the limited areas where grammar schools remain and denying any places to the parents unfortunate enough to live in the much larger areas where no grammar schools exist? This is a policy dictated not by parental choice or educational reasons but by a fear of being electorally tarnished as “elitists”. Since when has excellence become equivalent with elitism?

14. Mr Cameron has declared that his party will have a “one nation” philosophy and will dedicate itself to an aspirational ethos. In the present educational policy it is difficult to discern the “one nation” concept. In this context one cannot appreciate the singularity of England’s educational system which provides that where there are grammar schools there will be increased access to them (mainly in the south) where there are none they will continue to be no access to them. This is a position dictated by a Labour enactment, the product of its ideological programs. Doubtless aspirational parents largely in the North will wonder if it is only in the South / South- East that aspiration is to be encouraged in the field of education.

15. If David Cameron is to bequeath a political legacy based on “one nation” conservatism with an aspirational ethos, he will first be obliged to abandon an educational system that for ideological reasons excludes thousands of citizens from parental choice as to the manner and form in which they wish their children to be educated. The country’s improvement of post-primary education will not be met by forcing universities to lower their admission standards to accommodate the indifferent results of a largely all embracing and failing comprehensive system which in designating as Academies, a Blairite concept, will not cure but merely alleviate. Aspiration and learning are in the beginning the product of familial circumstances but in the final analysis if children are not encouraged or inspired at home, we must ensure that they are both taught and inspired at school.

16. It would be a beginning if the one nation aspirational conservative party of Mr Cameron’s was to make a start by repealing the straitjacket of the Labour 1998 Act which prohibits selection and the opening of new grammar schools permitting parents to decide if they rise or fall.

Robert McCartney Q.C.
Chairman - National Grammar Schools Association