Both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have backed removing New Labour’s ban on new grammar schools. Sunak did so when asked by Nick Ferrari at the first leadership hustings, and Truss did so when asked by myself and Andrew Gimson in ConservativeHome’s very own interview.
That they did so is unsurprising. Few other policies – asides from declaring war on France, abolishing income tax, or reintroducing the Corn Laws – are as likely to get a roar of approval from the Tory faithful. Such shows of leg are easily made on the campaign trail, and then even more easily dumped as the distractions of government mutliply.
Nevertheless, it is interesting in light on the candidates’ own educational backgrounds. Much has been made of Sunak attending Winchester College, and whether it contributed to his, ahem, “shouty private school behaviour”. Having met him, I would say he is the first Wykehamist I have known since his good friend James Forsyth who isn’t an entitled and tedious Brideshead enthusiast. But don’t hold that against him.
Truss, meanwhile, has got into some hot water over her claim that Roundhay School, her old comprehensive, “let down” children whilst she was there. These claims have been criticised by both a current Tory councillor who attended the school, and the former MP. Whomever is right, one thing still stands: it was no longer a grammar school when she attended.
Like Sunak, she reflects the educational landscape after Anthony Crosland’s efforts to “destroy every fucking grammar school” – a world divided between private education for those who can afford it, and the local comp for (almost) everybody else, with almost 1,300 English and Welsh grammar schools lost, and only 163 left. I myself attended a public school, on a scholarship, having been state educated until the age of 11.
Fortunately, our reforms since 2010 have meant that the gap between state and private schools is not so stark. Since Gove, through supporting phonics, streaming, curriculum reform, academies and free schools, we have seen over 10,000 academy school places created, and standards raised across the country. By 2018, almost two million more pupils were in schools rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted than in 2010. We now have Brampton Manor Academy sending more pupils to Oxbridge than Eton College
That might explain why some see the lifting of the ban on new grammar schools as a regressive measure. That is not because they necessarily see it as a step back towards the bad old day of a life-ruining Eleven Plus, crumbling secondary moderns, and tough-nosed teachers with mortar boards and canes. Instead, they see it as a narrow-minded retreat to an educational world before Gove’s life-changing reforms.
David Johnston, the MP for Wantage, didn’t resort to my lazy clichés when making his case against grammars for The Spectator. Instead, he eloquently argued that, when adjusted for backgrounds, grammars do little for raising attainment. He rightly highlighted that grammar schools today have five times the number of people that were at prep schools until the age of 11 than they do disadvantaged pupils, and that any programme of mass grammar building would require an awful lot of cash that we currently don’t have.
Nevertheless, Johnston misses some crucial facts about grammars today, and why lifting the ban would enhance the post-Gove educational landscape, rather than hinder it. As David Butterfield has highlighted, most counties no longer have grammar schools today, and those that do remain are overwhelmingly concentrated in wealthier, middle-class areas. Nearly a quarter are in Kent, and 45 out of the 50 most deprived upper-tier local authorities in England do not possess them.
This was not always the case. Butterfield pointed out, for example, that in 1959 60 percent of children in grammar schools in Yorkshire were the children of manual workers, at a point when 40 percent of pupils aged 15 nationwide were in grammars. Even more importantly, even in those grammar schools that exist today, the attainment gap between rich and poor is smaller than at all schools by a considerable amount – at only 4.3 percent, compared to 25 percent nationwide.
Why is this? The principle of selection means that focus can be directed at the naturally academic bright, whatever their background. If grammars were rolled out nationwide, I would not be surprised if their make up remained disproportionately middle-class. As Ed West has pointed out, middle-class children, on average, come from more literate households, read more widely, and possess a higher IQ. The more we learn about intelligence, the more it appears to be primarily genetic – and inheritable.
That could be used in a case against grammars. I disagree. Middle-class kids with pushy and literate parents will most likely be fine in whichever school you shove them, selective or not. But it is the bright children of disadvantaged or below-average IQ parents who lose out at schools where equality is placed before educational excellence. The purpose of selection is to provide them with the opportunities they would not otherwise have.
The coelacanth grammar schools we have today – living anachronisms from a past and damned age – are the post-code lottery at its worst, with parents shelling out on homes in catchment areas or tuition from just beyond the womb in order to get their kids to them and save on private school fees. Such was the world Crosland created (ably assisted, it must be said, by Margaret Thatcher).
The Cameroon answer to that question was to focus on raising the standard of all state schools, starting at the bottom – whilst studiously avoiding awkward questions over their own tendency to have attended private schools themselves.
Gove, the vessel for their aims but no Tartan Toff, has now been become so obsessed with his former quest to improve schools to have joined in Labour’s war on private schools. But removing charitable status from independent schools or charging VAT on fees will do nothing to better the life opportunities for the 93 percent of pupils not educated privately.
Instead, we can marry the free school revolution to the return of grammars. It was the fears of middle-class parents that their children would fail the Eleven Plus and be sent to an under-performing Secondary Modern that hastened the grammars’ departure.
So let us allow schools to become grammars if they like, selecting pupils based on ability. But let us also make sure that those who do not make the cut still attend schools that benefit from Gove’s reforms. Great schools for everyone, and selective schools for the more academic. The best of both worlds – and an end to Labour’s war on spiteful and erroneous war on educational success.
Or, if not the best world, then at least one where the contest to be our next Prime Minister does not dissolve into a meaningless squabble over who went where when.