Grammar schools


by John Kersey

Address to the Traditional Britain Group Conference, London, October 24 2015

One of the curious things about education is that, having experienced it at first hand, everyone believes themselves to be an expert on it. This is particularly damaging in the case of politicians, whose record of interference in education during the post-war era has offered a prime example of the dead hand of the state going where it has no business to be. Meanwhile, those who supposedly are the experts – those who teach – have effectively presided over the decline of their profession through decades of mistaken ideology and a belief that their profession continues to offer the last resting place for the Marxist spirit of 1968.

It is difficult for us to imagine now, but there was a time not so long ago when our education system was largely independent of government. The universities, in particular, were held to be self-governing communities of scholars, which is the model of the university we inherited from medieval times. At Oxford, there was not even any formal government instrument that permitted the University to grant degrees; simply the acknowledgement that it had done so since time immemorial and should continue in a similar manner. The history of our schools begins with the grammar schools, established by the Church, and from these our great independent schools developed from collegiate foundations – Eton, Winchester, Radley – which were both closely allied to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and, because they were boarding schools, could accept their pupils without geographical restriction.

Grammar schools have been much in the news recently and it is worth analysing some of the motives behind the debate on them and its wider context within our education system. I must declare a personal interest here: I was myself educated at what was at that time the top co-educational grammar school in the country. It was an academically highly selective school that was tremendously successful and which gave its pupils an outstanding education.

The history of state intervention in the grammar schools begins in 1869 under Gladstone, with the Endowed Schools Act. This Act followed upon the Public Schools Act of the previous year and proposed to restructure the endowments of the grammar schools so that they were more evenly distributed around the country and so that there was better provision for girls’ education. The Act changed many of the grammar schools which had been endowed to offer free classical education to boys into independent co-educational schools teaching a broader curriculum. The 1907 Education (Administrative Provisions) Act then introduced a requirement that all schools aided by government grant must reserve 25% of their places as free scholarships for students from the public elementary schools. This reform effectively brought about the grammar school in its twentieth-century guise.

It is with the 1944 Education Act that we see a designated role for the grammar schools as part of the tripartite system proposed, under which they would educate the top 25% of pupils. At this point there were around 1,200 state funded grammar schools, including not only those of ancient foundation but many which had been founded in the Victorian era, with its strong emphasis on self-improvement. In addition, there were 179 direct grant grammar schools, at which between 25 and 50% of pupils were educated free of charge and the remainder paid fees. All these became the maintained sector’s response to the independent schools; academic powerhouses dedicated to the needs of the most able.

We should now consider this system in its wider context. The tripartite system – divided between grammar schools, secondary moderns and technical schools – was designed to ensure that educational resources were distributed according to the ability of pupils to benefit from them and the state to provide for them. It was predicated upon the assumption that academically selective education produced the best results in terms of educating future leaders of the country in all areas, and above all upon the assumption that a university education should place academic excellence at the forefront of its priorities and should be reserved for those who stood to benefit most from it. It was academically competitive and there were consequences for failure at any level of the process. If, for example, you failed the eleven plus examination, you were unlikely to go to university.

Until 1965, this resulted in a situation where the universities were almost entirely filled by the products of independent and grammar schools. Their reputation was extremely high and their independence in academic terms was unquestioned. In a 1969 contribution to the educational “Black Papers”, Professor Richard Lynn wrote, “British education has been designed primarily to produce an intellectual elite. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, such an elite is necessary to keep going the intellectual and cultural tradition of European civilisation.” There was no suggestion in those days that the universities existed merely to train students for a career. Rather, they provided an academic education and existed for the purpose of propagating academic virtues, of which scholarship for its own sake and teaching were chief. Their graduates were, of course, in high demand by employers, but outside the specific professions, this was as much because of their intellectual calibre and qualities of character as it was because of any specific knowledge they possessed. In those days, the attitude persisted within independent and grammar school teaching that if someone was of the intellectual calibre to have graduated from Oxford or Cambridge they were capable of mastering and teaching any subject required at school level within reason. There were many examples of classicists who taught English Literature, or physicists who taught mathematics, and of course many academic staff also coached sport and music to a high level. Indeed, such breadth was viewed as a positive attribute.

We cannot pin the blame for the decline in our education entirely upon the Labour Party. It is quite true that many in the Labour Party have seen opposition to selective and fee-paying education as a cornerstone of their egalitarianism. But the Conservative Party has throughout the past fifty years signally failed to show support for academically selective education and as a result has been as willing a participant in our decline as its political rivals. The expansion of the universities during the 1960s took place under a Conservative government, which accepted the recommendations of the Robbins Report. The major expansion which followed during the 1990s and which is still ongoing has likewise been initiated by Conservatives. While the Conservatives introduced the Assisted Places scheme at independent schools in 1980, they have so far done nothing to bring it back since Tony Blair, himself an alumnus of Fettes, abolished it in 1997.

And yet, while our politicians can all trumpet that they have got more people into university education, what they cannot address is the fact that when you convert a selective education system into a mass education system you inevitably devalue the end product. In the 1960s it was extremely rare to see graduates working in non-graduate jobs because there was no graduate employment available to them. Nowadays it is commonplace. This transition has involved the creation of a deliberate untruth and its maintenance by an elaborate and costly bureaucracy. The untruth is that a British degree, wherever it is from, is a product of universal value. There is no end of quangos and interest groups – the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the Higher Education Academy, Universities UK, GuildHE – all of which are dedicated to maintaining that premise of “quality assurance”, to continually expanding higher education seemingly without limitation, and ultimately to what amounts to a universal higher education system whereby all who go to school can be admitted to a university.

It is interesting to note that the funding of education has told the truth far more than have the pronouncements from the powers that be. Until the 1990s, it was generally true that if you were successful in winning a university place, you would not have to pay for your education and you could access a grant that would cover your living expenses. With the rapid expansion in higher education and the conversion of the former polytechnics into universities came student loans to replace grants. Now, as the university sector expands even further, students in England and Wales must pay tuition fees in addition to the debts they incur for their maintenance.

Higher education has changed from an experience that was due to our brightest as of right to a commodity which is now available to all if they wish to pay for it, and particularly to foreign students who will pay even more than domestic ones. It is hardly surprising that if higher education is presented as a product within a marketplace – albeit a marketplace that consists entirely of a state monopoly – that the public will assess its value shrewdly and in many cases will decide that it is not worth the price being charged for it. That, however, cannot conceal the fact that for those who can benefit from academically selective higher education, that kind of education is increasingly subordinate to the mass higher education system, in which the scholarly ideal has been replaced by that of the Research Assessment Exercise and the demand for research to result in tangible product. Moreover any higher education is now increasingly out of reach for those without significant financial means or who are unwilling to incur significant debt against an uncertain return.

Education is the visible casualty of these changes, but it is not the only part of the picture. One very practical reason why governments have embraced mass higher education is because our society no longer has a large number of unskilled or semi-skilled jobs available. Where they are available, there is an increasing expectation that they will be filled by cheap immigrant labour. This leaves the unskilled native population to exist on benefits and occasional appearances on Channel Five. The government takes the view that the answer to this is to subject all to more education, hence its raising of the school leaving age. But this ignores the plain fact that of our population, a large number are not capable nor temperamentally suited to continuing their education. What they need is jobs, not an artificial means of keeping them off the unemployment statistics.

One curious characteristic of the decline of British education has been the willingness of those who have benefitted from its excellence to implement measures that have effectively denied the next generation the opportunity to benefit from the same opportunities as them. The losers in this are the academically able but financially impecunious. Social mobility is not something that should be the preserve of socialist politicians. During the 1980s there was much talk of Britain as a meritocracy, and yet the opportunities for those born in poverty to rise through the education system nowadays are fewer than they ever have been. Our politics, law, media and even the Olympics are now dominated by former pupils of independent schools. Since the effective abolition of the grammar schools the number of state school entrants to Oxford and Cambridge has fallen. This is not merely because pupils are not reaching the required academic standard but also because their teachers in too many cases believe that the top universities are elitist and that pupils should instead go to their local university much as they do their local school. In believing this, they condemn their pupils to fail.

An expectation has developed that those who are successful in our society will either pay for their children to be educated at independent schools, or will, usually for ideological reasons where they oppose selective education, send them to take their chances at the local comprehensive. The former option is becoming more difficult, because independent school fees are now pitched at a level that attracts the children of foreign oligarchs, and increasingly international students are taking more and more of the independent school places in this country at the expense of those from our own population who could benefit from such an education if only it were more reasonably priced.

The way in which properties are now sold according to the catchment areas of good schools tells us another fundamental truth; the education system may have abolished selection officially, but another kind of selection – one far less fair and far less transparent – is going on behind the scenes. We should not forget that the grammar schools had no catchment areas; they took everyone who passed the entrance exam regardless of where they lived. If you decide school admissions on the basis of property prices, you will create schools that are segregated by class and you will ensure that the poorest areas have the worst-performing schools.

League tables and OFSTED inspections are the government’s chosen means of reassuring us about the standards of our schools, but they are selective in the story they tell. Some examinations count for more than others, and schools have effectively played the system by entering pupils for them accordingly. On the other hand, weaker candidates have been withdrawn from subjects lest their results should reflect badly on the school’s standing.

And this brings us back to the grammar schools. When the Labour government abolished the tripartite system in 1965, it largely forced the maintained grammar schools to become comprehensives. Only in a few local authorities – just imagine today, local authorities defying central government! – did the grammar schools remain. In 1975, Labour ended the direct grant system and forced direct grant grammar schools to become comprehensives or independent schools if they wanted to continue. This left what remains today: 169 grammar schools in England and Wales and 69 in Northern Ireland.

We should ask why seventeen years of Conservative government between 1979 and 1997 did not see a renaissance for selective education, and indeed why further grammar schools closed or ceased to be selective during that period. The answer is that by this point, our education system had become one of the firmest bastions of the Left in the country. Its official endorsement of comprehensive education has been unwavering despite the eminently visible problems that have resulted from it. Any measure of reform or any challenge to the comprehensive system has been shouted down by the teaching unions, the university departments of education and the quangos – a group which Michael Gove used to refer to as “the blob”. He has said that these people believe that schools “shouldn’t be doing anything so old-fashioned as passing on knowledge, requiring children to work hard, or immersing them in anything like dates in history or times tables in mathematics…the result of their approach has been countless children condemned to a prison house of ignorance.” When I was at school, my teachers were drawn from all parts of the political spectrum. When I became a teacher myself, that was far less the case. My belief is that the comprehensive system exists to benefit one sector of society solely, and that is the teachers who find it ideologically to their liking.

By the end of my time in teaching it was axiomatic that whatever your politics, if you wished to teach, you would accept the Leftist orthodoxy that the profession had imposed and that you would not challenge it. That orthodoxy says, in essence, that all must have prizes and that the excellent are the enemy of the good. It sees education not as an academic pursuit but instead as a means of social engineering and vocational training, and as a means of reducing crime and social disorder. Over the years it has provided a happy home for all manner of Marxist nonsense and has enshrined teaching methods, particularly in basic English, that fail to achieve the same results as the traditional methods they replaced. It is not difficult to see the decline in the standard of written English in public life today compared to that of fifty years ago, and we have those teachers who promoted free expression ahead of spelling and grammar to thank for that.

Any education system will produce winners and losers. If we say that all must have prizes, then we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that those prizes will be of limited value. We cannot create their value merely by attaching government branding to them, for no-one believes that something is good simply because the government endorses it. Indeed, we had a situation in this country for many years where the products of the state monopoly, notably those of British Leyland, were regarded as markedly inferior to those of the private sector. The state can only win in education by deliberately retarding any perceived or actual competition. It does so through legislation – the Education Reform Act of 1988 effectively banned private sector universities – and for those entities that are private or independent in theory, it has devised a web of regulation and bureaucracy that in practice curtails their independence. OFSTED is one manifestation of this. Another is the devaluation that has characterized our exam system.

For many years, O and A level examinations were regarded as a gold standard. They were difficult to obtain and represented a high standard of achievement. They were unashamedly academic and required a high degree of factual recall. They could be taught in a way that stretched the most able and allowed for considerable extension activity. They were tested predominantly through timed examinations and not through coursework or continuous assessment. This was also the model of educational assessment maintained by the universities who were in turn responsible for the examination boards. While the CSE examination taken in secondary modern schools was not regarded as prestigious there is no question that it was a rigorous and well respected credential, as indeed were the awards of the former polytechnics. The fact that those awards were not degrees or were not O and A levels did not diminish their fitness for purpose, but it fostered a belief among egalitarians that they were second-tier qualifications and that they deserved the same titles as would be awarded to the more academically inclined. Unfortunately, this academic inflation has proved very costly. Because we no longer teach woodwork and metalwork in our schools, we end up importing our joiners and plumbers from Poland, and those who want to learn a skilled trade are unlikely to do so during their school years. The truth is that not everyone needs, wants or will benefit from an academic education, and when subjected to one against their will, it is unsurprising that many teenagers become disruptive and unco-operative.

It is interesting to note that while we have moved away from the academically selective model and from traditional modes of teaching and assessment, other former British possessions, notably India, have kept it and benefitted strongly as a result. The government determined to take the examination boards out of university control, to privatize them and to introduce competition. The result has been a race to the lowest denominator. The examinations are not invariably easier, but they have become increasingly turgid and reductive, with an emphasis on turning everything into something that can be easily and transparently assessed in simple terms. The GCSE examination, brainchild of Sir Keith Joseph and strongly opposed at the time by Baroness Thatcher, has been a misguided attempt to merge academic and vocational education, and the fact that a number of selective schools have turned to international examinations to replace it in recent years testifies to its limitations. It is also notable that many academically demanding schools now prefer the International Baccalaureate to A levels.

I believe that Michael Gove will come to be seen as the only Education Secretary of the past fifty years to have genuinely understood some of these problems and tried, in the face of overwhelming opposition from “the blob”, to address them. I hasten to add that this is not a general endorsement of Gove’s views or policy solutions, many of which I disagree with. He has, however, endeavoured to return rigour to our exam system and it may well be that he has, at least in some respects, succeeded. How lasting that success will be remains to be seen. Gove, after all, was replaced as Education Secretary because, so it is said, his approach was seen to be too confrontational; the opposition he had aroused included two votes of no confidence from three teaching unions, voodoo pincushions, anti-Gove T-shirts and an entire Twitter feed devoted to hating him. But the fact remains that we must confront the education establishment and we must win that confrontation if we are to achieve anything at all. The path of least resistance is to go along with the blob and do their bidding. The difficulty with that is that it fails those who lack a voice in this debate but whose interests need to be right at its heart: our next generation of pupils. Perhaps Gove, who was born far from privilege and won a scholarship to an independent school, understood this more than many of his colleagues.

I want to close by noting some aspects of the ethos of the grammar school. For all that academies and free schools may have some elements of it, they are still a long way away. The good grammar school is a highly structured and disciplined institution where academic values are at the heart of the life of the school and these are allied to an institutional endorsement of Christian principle irrespective of pupils’ own religious beliefs. It is formal in its rituals, encouraging teachers to wear academic dress, having a house system that is both pastoral and competitive, and maintaining high standards of uniform and behaviour. Often the school has an extensive history and distinctive, occasionally eccentric, traditions. What it teaches should be what the top selective universities demand. I well remember that my school did not teach certain subjects because those universities did not take them seriously at entrance, and that it disdained vocational studies altogether. Unlike the comprehensives, the grammar school is not a school where all are forced to study the same curriculum regardless of ability. Above all, it is a place where to excel academically is the norm and where to aim high is natural, with the expectation that the vast majority of pupils would go on to places at university and the best would go on to those which were rated most highly. If the grammar school is an elite, then it is not in my experience a complacent elite, but rather one where elite status must be earned anew by each generation of pupils and teachers. When such schools work, they offer a beacon of opportunity for those who, on merit, win a place at them. We need more of them. In 1997, John Major promised us a grammar school in every town, a phrase which has since been echoed by UKIP. It is time to restore our culture and values to our education system, and a strong grammar school system is the best way to do this.

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3 comments

  • An excellent speech, both to hear and to read.

  • There’s nothing to add to that, except to say it is quite right.

  • As a non-British commenter, I have a question for the Education lobby. This question is one I have asked of people in my own country (Australia); we seem to have the same grub burrowing into our brains, as well.
    The question is: why do our houses of assembly contain so many semi-literate grubs? And why, when you set aside the “semi-literate grubs”, are the remainder so short on technical, scientific and mathematical knowledge and awareness? (I understand, from my readings in the popular press, that your House of Commons has fewer than 5 technically aware members. Correct?). The same thing happens here; look at the “global warming” foolishness that has infected Cameron and his people, and Turnbull and his coterie in Australia. And look at the influence of “lawyers” in those areas. They can make a very good living elsewhere (if they are any good … possibly part of the problem). So maybe I have partly answered my own questions.
    With all of the education available, why are there so many in British politics with your PPE qualification? This seems to be (regardless of the theoretical foundations for such a course) an easy way to slide through the years of tertiary studies. And to remain a technological illiterate.
    Our PM has a law degree, and a Rhodes/Oxford PPE (I think). Underwhelming!
    This is not a diatribe aimed at you British. It is a serious problem here; and I understand from friends in Canada and the US that it is a serious problem there as well. (In passing, look at the problems in the last week at U of Missouri and Yale.)
    I have long passed 70, and have spent years in engineering and management in a tough industry (mining), so I will not be around to inspect the cock-ups resulting. But I am not certain of the prospects for my children and grand-children.

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