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On education

Grammar schools have come back into debate thanks to Mrs May and her personal views. As with most of our Prime Minister’s pronouncements, this is probably mere empty grandstanding and wishful thinking on her part, but it has the potential to flare up as an issue at any time. UKIP needs to think carefully about its position on this, since it is not as straightforward as it seems. The instinct of our ex-Tories is to support selective education but there are good grounds to challenge the orthodoxy, and the politics of it is a factor too.

Grammars are a beacon of excellence in an often depressing educational landscape, providing benchmarks for other schools to aspire to and some consolation for the poor general performance of British education measured against other developed countries. They encourage talent and ambition to be fulfilled, and a degree of social mobility for the able young. They are an embodiment of parental choice and the natural desire to do one’s best for one’s children.

But they are discriminatory. ‘Nothing wrong in that’, you might say, people discriminate against others and are discriminated against all the time and in all sorts of ways. It’s just how life is, and the sooner children realise life is competitive, the better. Competition raises standards and we therefore need to ensure a grammar in every town. So goes the argument. Which is all very well until it comes up against the ‘me test’. How do you feel when it is your child or grandchild who has just been told they have failed the 11 Plus and have to go to a comprehensive school instead? How do you feel when that child is you?

Let us talk about those standards. Firstly the best comprehensives will give the worst grammars a run for their money. So much depends on the school’s ethos and the influence of a good head. More importantly the presence of higher ability pupils in any school must give the potential for higher standards than it would otherwise achieve. Admittedly that opportunity is often wasted amid the generally inadequate standards prevalent in the whole system, but that is something which can be put right. And if that can be done then the argument about fulfilling talent and ambition recedes.

The claim for social mobility is also misplaced. It was certainly true once, but today’s grammars have long been purloined by the middle class, who move house to be close, creating a distortion in the local housing market which prices poorer people out. They nearly always now tutor their children, an expense most working class parents cannot afford. Ah, you say, but with grammars everywhere, at least the ghetto effect and class aspect would be solved – but that seriously underestimates the capacity and voracity of the middle class to do what they can for their children. They would form the same enclaves everywhere, even in cities and bigger towns with more than one grammar. And the tutoring industry would balloon. This is why social mobility has ceased to be a significant factor.

So we are left with the issue of parental choice. Grammars however are not private schools. The question is not one of stopping parents from choosing private education if they so wish. Grammars are state-funded institutions, and the question is whether parents ought to have a choice on something for which there is not a great deal of support in the country.

Our chief concern should be to raise standards. The way to do that is to get back to basics. We should scrap the great majority of teacher training colleges, which for decades have been indoctrinating generations of young teachers with half-baked leftist theories of child-centred education and prizes for all. Instead we should draw on the principles of the old pupil-teacher system, where aspiring teachers would try their hand out at teaching for a short spell to see if they had the aptitude and potential to become teachers. It would of course need to be adapted to the modern situation, so for example graduates, which are only necessary for secondary and tertiary levels, would be placed in a school for a few days as a preliminary to continuing with their application. Primary level applicants would be accepted on their A levels and would not need to be graduates. All would be on probation until deemed able enough to embark on their careers. The only role for the few remaining training colleges would be to run short methods-of-instruction courses to ensure new teachers knew the basics of imparting and confirming knowledge and the mechanics of the latest visual and audio aids.

The army of teaching assistants should be disbanded. They were never necessary when standards were higher, and actually are a hindrance, since the instant more than one person is speaking in a roomful of children you have low-level chaos. There should be one person, the teacher, doing all the talking, with all the pupils facing them and not split into groups. The teacher should not be burdened by the huge amount of preparation now deemed so essential, or by too many tests and administrative paperwork. All the money saved would be used to pay them more, reduce class sizes and improve facilities. In other words we should emulate the private schools which do such a good job, many effectively with minimal selection. We might then start to see the rise in standards across the board we so desperately need. And we should ensure both geography and history, particularly British history, are compulsory to GCSE, so this basic knowledge of the world is in place.

The grammar schools debate has to be seen in the wider context of the need for improvement. Keep the 164 grammars we have for the time being, but think of the common good, and do not go and alienate millions of traditional Labour voters by pushing for more. Leave that to Mrs May.

Do we want to win – or not?

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12 Comments on On education

  1. It would be a retrograde step indeed if universal 11+ testing was brought back to get into a grammar school. That every primary schoolchild was forced to take this test and face the ritual public humiliation of failing it, was what brought it into disrepute. The division caused by the crude Pass/Fail system gave the socialists an excuse to destroy perfectly good grammar schools on the grounds that they were ‘elitist’.

    Any primary school teacher can assess how bright and academically-minded a child is as they approach 11 or 12 years of age. If there is a grammar school in the area, the child can be recommended to sit a private entrance test, should the parents wish it. If the child doesn’t reach the required standard, nothing is publicised and he/she can simply be told that they are going to a different school. Only so many children can be accepted for the first-year intake, therefore the private sitting for tests can be managed in small to medium-sized groups over a number of months with the minimum of fuss. There is absolutely no sense in depriving the brighter-than-average child the opportunity to benefit from the quiet, ordered and studious atmosphere of a school where everyone is eager to learn and to excel.

    The REALLY important issue in Education is the existence of so-called faith schools, especially muslim ones where some shocking practices go on. These include the physical abuse of children during ‘islamic studies’ and the teaching of hatred and scorn for other religions and ‘unbelievers’ in general.

    If people of religion wish to indoctrinate their children with their faith, they can take them to church, chapel, temple, mosque or teach them at home. Religion has no place in schools; schools are for the education of the child’s mind in practical and academic subjects, not for further brainwashing in whatever superstition is favoured by their parents.
    If for nothing else, children need and deserve some respite from the mumbo-jumbo that is dignified with the name ‘religion’ – and school should be that place of respite.

    • Thanks for entering the discussion Panmelia.
      When I still supported grammars it was on the priviso that tests could also be taken at later ages – which I think became Party policy. Problem with private tests is that teachers don’t always get it right, and quite probably we’d see large numbers refusing to co-operate with such a system of recommendations.
      Which leads to a similar problem with faith schools. It is just not realistic to expect any changes there – too many people still think church schools a good thing – however strong we might like the principle of secular-only education to be.
      Someone long before Harold Wilson must have said politics is the art of the possible. We have to have broad appeal in all our policies if we are to have any chance of power.

  2. Quercus, there are few major issues with education and I believe they are not only UK’s problems but also widespread across Europe (for sure in Poland).
    1. Pupils are promoted to next year even if they do not manage to learn a minimum of the curriculum. This leads to splitting classes into groups based on an advance of pupils and some more difficult topics in later years (especially in primary and secondary schools). The less able pupils are dragging down a whole class and make the learning process more complicated.
    2. Too much emphasis on University Educated targets, more students will not make much more educated society, it will make courses easier to allow a majority of students to complete them. We surely do not need more lawyers or artists (IMO you are an artist or not – this is not something you can learn).
    3. Schools are too worried about fulfilling targets applied by governments rather than to teach pupils. Let the parents decide – educational vouchers as citizenkain proposing would much improve a situation. The state school does not see parents and their children as customers and what is more important as a bills payer, for school it is a Local Authority.

    • Slawek
      OK till we got to the end!
      LEAs now control ever fewer schools, and I don’t think any school sees its LA as the customer.
      Rather more importantly, vouchers are high Tory and ordinary people aren’t going to be impressed. They want high standards with fairness, and the country needs to up the average. Vouchers would also generate their own costs and bureaucracy – acceptable for gains but doubt we’d see any.

      • Quercus,
        I meant state funded schools (in 2016 7 808 590 pupils in primary and secondary schools funded by the state against 750 950 outside state-funded primary and secondary). The school does not recognise parents as customers here – for the school it is the state. Education voucher would change this view and improved the things.
        Q. once again I do not mind who proposing the change – as long as I believe it is an improvement.
        I do not understand what do you mean by “high standards with fairness” – I am a surely ordinary man and I like my boys to be prepared to adult live in the best possible way. This includes a certain level of knowledge but also some work ethics and problem-solving skills which seemed to be missing in the current system (I am talking about primary and secondary schools here).

        • There can be very few teachers anywhere in the world, Slawek, who don’t put their charges first – ‘customers’ in your language. Parents have a right to expect the best whether as taxpayers or private payers, and I don’t see how the unnecessary complication of a voucher system would help. Variety alone is not the answer – many of Mr Blair’s academies are not doing very well.
          I’m sure you want high standards for your boys. Whether you also want them to grow in a fairer world I’m not so sure, but I suspect if you thought they were being unfairly treated in some way you’d soon complain.

  3. We need a choice of schools preferably all run by the private sector. Parents to be given vouchers every year to ‘pay’ for the school fees. Standards would rocket. We need technical schools, language schools, country schools and in big cities genius schools where a super elite of brainies can be given a fast track in science and related fields.
    Standards and ideology in many British comprehensives are rock bottom mediocrity that deny working class children a chance to better themselves.
    Most of the heroes of the Battle of Britain ( pilots and ground crew) were grammar school boys rather than public school boys.
    I went to an elite German language school (Gymnasium) in Argentine as I have mentioned before. My family are a mixture of English, Scottish, and Hispanic.

    • And who would control all this and stop it becoming a lottery, CK?
      The efficient way to do it is by LEAs, controlled by a strong government. Bit like the war effort, you might say.
      Other countries richer and happier than us don’t select like this.

      • LEAs are the problem not the solution. Marxist maniacs who have ruined intellectual standards. Waste on a colossal scale.
        The system would run itself but could be policed by a) An Ombudsman b) A standards Inspectorate with draconian powers.
        Sweden has been utterly ruined by the plans you advocate. It is still dire with their voucher scheme but there is a bit of hope there.
        Germany does well because of its Technical Schools and France likewise due to the Grande Lycee system.
        Do your homework!

        • LEAs were allowed to get it wrong by weak central government and leftist ideas in the teaching establishment, which central government could have stopped by rigorous action but didn’t.
          OFSTED late getting it right and its inspectorate role could be stronger(why so many ‘Outstanding’ schools when they’re clearly not?)
          Sweden’s problem is immigration, but still richer and more productive than we are – but look at Finland.
          Not much point in international comparisons because of so many other factors, but PISA results don’t particularly favour your argument, and Finland and S Korea beat France and Germany easily. Comparing Canada and Australia is interesting – former non-selective and ahead.
          Aim is better average level (the flyers will still come through) and social cohesion.
          Same challenge as to Gary – come with me to Stoke and try peddling selection.
          Do yours!

  4. I’ve only read a couple of your articles Quercus, on tax and now education. You really are in the wrong party. Well, either you are or I am, and I hope it’s not me!

    Despite the nominal dig at “half-baked leftist theories” most of what you espouse is straight from the leftist playbook.

    Despite the introduction and tone of this piece, you are arguing that to improve standards in schools, no more grammar schools can be opened. This is contradictory in the context of the article (especially paragraph 2) and is nonsensical. It is also directly set against long standing UKIP policy.

    As I pointed out on your article on taxation, capitalism is not a dirty word. Discrimination is not a dirty word either (unless you’re a leftist). It means tailoring what is available to best suit those who need it. One size fits nobody education will never work as well as bespoke, discriminating education tailored to the child’s individual needs.

    The section on raising standards across all schools is a total straw man; nobody would disagree with that and it is certainly not an argument against more grammar schools.

    • Gary
      What I’m trying to do is get people to think more laterally. I was once a strong supporter of grammar schools too but when you come to analyse it the facts aren’t there. If you want to base your argument on those facts one by one, which I try to explain, then please go ahead, but so far you haven’t. All we’ve had so far is the anticipated knee-jerk reaction.
      Paragraph 2 is of course to show some balance and acknowledege the closeness of the argument. What follows is the case against what might have been true once but isn’t now. And if the logic is sound, then to raise standards across the board we shouldn’t be opening any more grammars. (That is not to say we shoudn’t be streaming within schools – of course we should, in the larger ones).
      I’ll agree that capitalism isn’t a dirty word when you agree socialism isn’t either. Not that capitalism has much to do with grammars, or socialism non-grammars.
      A strawman is not a banal motherhood and applepie statement – it’s a first attempt to get debate going. This is much more than that – it’s a coherent argument which stands or falls on the facts.
      And you haven’t addressed the clincher – the Labour voters we need to win aren’t going to want more grammar schools, however much you might like them to. I challenge you to come canvassing with me in Stoke if you don’t believe me.
      This is not left or right. If I am to the right of you on some issues, does that make you a lefty? Try reading my article on immigration.

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