National Grammar Schools Association
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 by Robert McCartney QC, chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association

For almost fifty years the quality of British education has been in gradual but accelerating decline. Since the liberal principle of equality of opportunity was replaced by the Marxist one of equality of results, which even Russia has long since abandoned, Britain’s place in the world’s league tables of quality has steadily fallen.  During these years the principle of educational excellence achieved on merit has been sacrificed for a false equality offering prizes for all regardless of effort, merit or result.

Cynicism, self-interest and careerism have often replaced vocation and idealism within the teachers’ unions, the examination bodies, the educational establishment and the political parties.  All have been guilty of promoting or supporting schemes to use schools for the advancement of social, ideological and political goals, even when these patently obstructed the capacity of schools to discharge their primary functions of educating.  Social engineering rather than education has increasingly become the objective. These institutions have often engaged in energetic campaigns against academic studies.   They have frequently propounded that the role of the teacher in imparting knowledge is less important than simply being a guide to pupils on some ill-defined voyage of educational self-discovery.

The conjunction of an allegedly progressive element within the educational establishment advocating equality of results, with a Labour government which viewed the grammar schools as part of the bedrock of a conservative social infrastructure, produced Tony Crosland’s onslaught upon the grammar schools which he was determined to destroy.  When asked by his researchers at the Department if they should investigate the relative merits of the selective and all-ability systems, his response was instructive.  “No” he replied “that is a matter for political judgment”.  Whatever the political judgment upon the merits of the opposing systems, all objective evidence points to the superiority of the selective system, not only in terms of education, but as a vehicle for upward social mobility.  Such evidence also refutes the emotional and anecdotal arguments raised by those who favour the comprehensive system.  Launching his campaign in the Commons on 21 January 1965, Crosland referred to “the need to raise educational standards at all levels”, which was impeded by the separation of children into different types of secondary schools.  Unsurprisingly, he provided no evidence for this, but he did rely on the “label of failure” argument beloved by subsequent generations of his supporters.  After fifty years, the verdict of history is that the “label of failure” is firmly fixed upon the system of education he was advocating.  It is only in recent years that the cumulative extent of its failure has become so evident that it is no longer capable of disguise, and the attempts to conceal it so gross that some efforts to palliate its failure rather than to cure it are being made; first by Tony Blair’s Academies project and now by Michael Gove’s tentative reforms.

It was not long before the weakness of the comprehensive schools in general became evident.  The DES statistics for 1978 showed that for the five preceding years the percentage of school leavers with two or more ‘A’ levels was 50% higher in selective schools.  Comprehensive schools were on average simply too small to support sixth form specialist teachers.  By 1980, the Inspectorate reported that in the London area, 35% of ’A’ level teaching groups contained no more than four pupils.  There was no answer to the problem of how a comprehensive system could effectively concentrate bright pupils and clever specialist staff - a problem for which the grammar schools had long since provided the answer.  The catastrophic drop in the number of comprehensive pupils successfully taking the tough ‘A’ level subjects like chemistry, physics, mathematics and modern languages was evidenced by a written answer  to a Parliamentary Question (Hansard, 10 March 2005). This showed the number of pupils achieving ‘A’ and ‘B’ grades at ‘A’ level in these subjects. The remaining 164 grammar schools obtained 10,823, while the country’s  2,000 or so comprehensives achieved just 22,230, a ratio in favour of the grammars of perhaps 10 to 1.

In areas where grammar schools still exist, there remain a few secondary modern schools, which supporters of  comprehensives would claim are the repositories of failures.  Once more, Labour Government statistics put paid to this fallacious argument.  On 2 August 2004, Lord Adonis, then the Education Minister, revealed that 51.4% of comprehensive pupils achieved 5 or more GCSE’s grade ‘A’ to ‘C’ and that 42.3% of secondary modern pupils were equally successful.  When one recognises that the comprehensive intake is all ability and includes the top 25%, the secondary modern results are a remarkable success.  This is underlined by the fact that, only a few years ago, in the 18 exclusively comprehensive schools in the Bristol local authority, the average was 35.1% against the national average for secondary moderns of 42.3%.  The failures are not among the pupils, but among the schools.

Had government policy been based upon purely educational considerations rather than perceived political advantage, the effect of the objective evidence would have been overwhelming but, as Tony Crosland observed, the matter was one not for educational but rather political judgment.  Since there was no question of a rational, fact-based debate, the failure of the educational system was simply disguised.  Ever increasing success rates in GCSE and ‘A’ level examinations were achieved by dumbing down their difficulty; by being generous with marking, by a system of modules, and by allowing repeated attempts to enhance grades.  Added to these were the commercially driven examining bodies, which attracted ‘customer’ schools by providing easy exams and the methodology for gaining premium results.  These not only improved league table positions, but supplemented results obtained by some heads directing bright pupils to easier ‘A’ level subjects.  Did the educational establishment or the teachers’ unions raise their voices in protest about this cosy arrangement?  They did not.  It was left to an investigative journalist on a national newspaper to expose this scandal, which also revealed deficiencies in the oversight of both the Education Department and the Inspectorate.

Now, Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has confirmed that Britain has become a country where a huge number of children are leaving primary school unable to read properly and that a large percentage of 16 year olds have regressed to a reading level below that which they achieved at primary school.  The knock-on effect has resulted in millions of adults with a reading age below that required from children on leaving primary school  The primary schools are the place where the educational rot first sets in.  Many primary teachers are caring and dedicated, but their methods often bear the imprint of post-sixties progressive ideology.  When Sir Jim Rose presented his report on the teaching of reading to Alan Johnson, who was then Labour Education Secretary, it drew from him the comment that thousands of primary school children had been betrayed. Mr Johnson directed that synthetic phonics should be the teaching method from then on.  Yet, as Sir Michael has now confirmed, this demand was never properly implemented. Many of today’s new teachers have not been properly trained or brought up to date.

It is not suggested that a return to a nationwide selective system based on a single examination is now feasible, but within the government’s vaunted support for parental choice in education, provision should be made for those children who have voluntarily sat a selective examination and by success demonstrated their suitability for an academically weighted education.  The failure to make such provision by permitting the opening of new grammar schools in the face of overwhelming demand, demonstrated by successive opinion polls, has placed enormous pressure on the 164 existing grammar schools. Places in these schools are often over-subscribed tenfold.  While Michael Gove’s decision to permit some existing grammars to expand, either within existing facilities or via satellite schools,  is to be welcomed, it defies logic that nothing is being done for the bright children in four fifths of England where there are no existing grammar schools.  The restriction on places has led to the well-off, either by coaching or house purchase, gaining an unfair advantage and the well-founded criticism that selection on merit has often been replaced by selection on the basis of money and postcode. The real restriction on bright but disadvantaged children gaining access to good schools is the government policy of limiting the number of new grammar schools, despite an overwhelming demand for them.

Michael Gove’s adoption of the Academies concept and his reforms on curriculum, classroom discipline, examinations, and measures to improve teacher quality and training are all to be welcomed, as is the freeing of schools from local authority control. But these are all measures designed to treat the symptoms of an educational malaise rather than to effect its cure.  The electorate has lost faith in politicians whose primary objective appears simply to gain or retain office.  David Cameron’s educational policy with his about-turn on the grammar schools seems motivated by a perceived requirement to project a caring image on his party’s face and  perhaps a misconception that new grammar schools will be exploited by his opponents and coalition partners as elitist,  and therefore electorally harmful.  Faced, however, with the unpleasant reality that unrestrained comprehensive education is failing the nation, Michael Gove has been charged to improve it, but in such a way as to minimise its potential for electoral harm. It appears that political expediency and not educational quality will always be the determining factor whatever the colour of the government. What could more clearly demonstrate this situation than the requirement that world-class universities must lower their admission standards to accommodate the products of failing comprehensive schools. This is but another example of educational institutions being obstructed in their true purpose of educating, by efforts to use them as instruments of social engineering to advance social ideology and political advantage. Unless the real educational issues are addressed, the decline in British education will continue, albeit at a slower pace.

March 2012