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?