National Grammar Schools Association
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CHAIRMAN’S REMARKS to the Annual General Meeting of the National Grammar Schools Association, 26 April 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen,

My name is Robert McCartney. As a member of the National Committee representing Northern Ireland, I was elected Chairman in March of this year upon the resignation of Brian Wills Pope. Tribute to Brian’s contribution to the work of the Association will be made later by those with a longer experience and closer knowledge of his work.

A lawyer by occupation, I have been a Queen’s Counsel since 1975. I served as an independent member of Parliament from 1995 until 2001, and as a member of Northern Ireland’s Assembly from1998 until 2007. I am totally committed to selective education based on equality of opportunity, and the social mobility it promotes through the medium of the grammar school. As the youngest of eight children of working class parents I was the only one who received a grammar school education as the result of the 1944 Education Act. My four children are all honours graduates from St. Bartholomew’s Medical School; London, Manchester and Oxford universities. I believe all of this is due to equality of opportunity determined by merit within a selective system.

The excellent research and publications of our Vice Presidents and co-founders Fred Naylor and Roger Peach, together with all other objective and statistical evidence confirm that the grammar schools are totally out-performing schools within the comprehensive system. That issue is so far beyond debate that our opponents are unwilling to engage on objective terms. As far back as 1965, Tony Crossland, then Education Minister, was asked by his researchers if they should investigate the relative merits of the two systems; his reply was NO, “that is a matter for political judgment”. The case for comprehensive education is not driven by a search for educational effectiveness, but is fuelled by political ideology and a misguided belief that schools can solve social and political problems. Its aim is not to provide equality of opportunity for all children according to their needs, but to give effect to the Marxist principle of equality of results.

The failure of the comprehensive experience has caused aspirational parents to flee the system in favour of the grammar schools, where applications are up 22% since 1997, and where parents can afford it, to the independent schools in areas where no grammar school is available. Ironically, this has only encouraged the extreme rump of the Labour Party to renew their efforts to abolish the principle of selection and, with it, the grammar school ethos. At the same time, mainstream Labour, which is acutely aware of the political repercussions of openly punishing success in support of failure, is continuing the ideological war by more covert means. Reducing the per capita funding for grammar schools vis-à-vis comprehensives, consolidation of grammar schools, hard and soft federation with comprehensives, and amalgamation with comprehensives under the Building Schools for the Future Programme, and government control of admissions, are all strategies for effectively reducing the number of grammar schools.

The most recent strategy is that of Ed Ball’s proposals for greatly enhancing the salaries of Head Teachers in successful schools, which must include grammars, who are willing to use their expertise on secondment to a failing comprehensive in an effort to turn it round. While I believe this declared core objective is likely to fail, it could well result in the absorption of a number of grammar schools into the comprehensive system. It is a matter of historical record that Tony Crossland, the Labour Education Minister in the 1960’s fuelled the drive for the transition of a number of grammars to comprehensives by a series of financial inducements to teachers. Inherent in this most recent strategy, though not, of course, acknowledged, is the accepted superiority of the grammar schools; who by and large are successful. On the other hand, over 640 comprehensives are deemed to be failing, with less than 30% of their pupils achieving five G.C.S.E.’s graded A to C. including English and Maths. The reason for their failure is due only in part to leadership. A grammar school has an ethos of academic achievement, a subject based curriculum, aspirational parents and teachers, and a school discipline based on pupil respect for adult authority both of teacher and parent. In many, if not all cases, it is the absence of these factors that is the cause of the failure of comprehensive schools in the first place, making it questionable if a change of management style will alone make any significant difference.

In the face of the open attack from Labour Party extremists and the more insidious strategies of the government, the N.G.S.A. will only succeed in maintaining the existing grammar schools let alone extending their numbers if it remains a united and composite Association of schools, parents, teachers, associates, and allied supporters. The divisive events which may well form the subject of much of today’s discussion will afford great joy to all sections of our opponents.

In such circumstances, we would all do well to remind ourselves of the principles upon which the Association was founded by Fred Naylor and Roger Peach. Central to these was the legal right of parents, not schools or Heads, but parents to have their children educated in accordance with their own values. The detailed objects set out in Rule 2 of the Constitution included maintaining selection by reference to ability in all grammar schools; the promotion of the principle of parental preference for selection; and opposition to all proposals for the closure of grammar schools or the withdrawal or dilution of selection by academic ability.

The overwhelming majority of the Association’s current National Committee believe in and wish to adhere to the Constitution’s objects and, until such times as the Constitution is amended or replaced those who have a view in conflict with them must consider their position.

The Association has, I believe, always valued the contributions made by Head Teachers to the objects which they shared with parents, governors, teachers, and general supporters, but this Association does not in my interpretation of the Constitution include among its objects the professional interests of Head Teachers viewed as an exclusive body.

Mr. David Wheeldon, the orgin of the separate Heads Body concept, was provided as a member of the National Committee with every opportunity to become Chairman of a Sub Committee specifically created to represent the interests and views of Head Teachers and to relay their concerns and proposals to the National Committee. Yet he neither attended the National Committee of which he was a member until his resignation some months ago, or communicated with it. At the same time he used its auspices to bring about the present impasse. Despite repeated attempts to meet with him and discuss his concerns, no date or time suitable to him could be found. One thing is now clear as a result of his letter – his intention to subsume, if he can, the inclusive nature of the N.G.S.A. into an exclusive Heads Body dedicated to the professional interests of its own members.

Allegations against the National Committee of being right wing and developing extreme views remain unsupported by any example or evidence of any such tendency. Claims that the Committee is less than sympathetic to grammar school Heads are not only untrue but irrational. Opposition to grammar school closures; to consolidation or federation with a comprehensive, or being swallowed up with failing schools in a Building School for the Future Programme are not right wing because they fall squarely within the Constitution’s objects. It is conceivable, however, that such opposition might be counter to the professional interest of a Head or Heads, but such does not make the N.G.S.A. or its National Committee either unsympathetic or right wing.

Since the potential conflict of the N.G.S.A. with Mr. Wheeldon’s Heads Body began to crystallise, the National Committee has never been offered any express reason for the creation of the Heads Body that could not have been accommodated within the N.G.S.A. If Mr. Wheeldon had any constructive criticisms of the National Executive or offered a means for remedying any identified failures such were never made. The Heads have every right to form a Body dedicated to the protection and pursuit of what they perceive as their professional interests and the N.G.S.A. has no quarrel with that. But Mr. Wheeldon’s letter of 9th April reveals quite a different motivation, which is for the Heads, who represent but one sector of the N.G.S.A. to take control of the National Committee or, alternatively, to dissolve the Association and appropriate its funds. These wholly destructive aims founded upon unsupported allegations, and which are almost certainly contrary to the wishes of the vast number of members, supporters, and associates, will bring despair to the countless parents throughout the Kingdom who believe in the principle of selection and the survival of the grammar schools. They will, however, bring immeasurable joy to such as Dr. Ian Gibson and his extreme left wing cohorts in the Labour Party.

Today the future direction of the N.G.S.A. lies in your hands. I can only hope that the grave responsibility which this places upon you will be given your balanced consideration. Truth cannot be suppressed indefinitely, for time and circumstances will inevitably reveal it – a process which has now been accelerated by the Freedom of Information Act.