The Grammar School Debate: In Grammars We Trust
Education is one of the greatest tools to combat ignorance and intolerance. It empowers young people to explore new ideas, breaking the sclerotic class divisions that plague less developed societies. If ever we needed an example of how a lack of adequately diverse schooling can lead to the repression of a people, then we should look no further than former Soviet Union, where the government enjoyed an almost exclusive monopoly over the education of its youth.
This is the reason for which the extension of grammar schools must not only be welcomed as a constructive step towards social mobility, but embraced as a practical necessity in a system that whilst remaining under government supervision, should be given greater freedoms to reduce the inefficiency and bureaucracy that are tied inextricably with state interference.
Opponents of grammar schools usually espouse the typical Trotskyite flim-flam about inequality. They complain at great length as to how selective education results in an attainment gap and how such a disparity is intolerable. The solution, they claim, is to close grammar schools, reduce the choice to a one-size-fits-all school in which everyone has the equal chance to fail. Here we see the most important problem with the case against selective schooling.
Education should be about opening new horizons to our young people instead of limiting their opportunities by the dissemination of an anti-élitist doctrine intent on reducing, not widening, the life chances of students. As Mrs Thatcher quite rightly remarked “They would rather the poor were poorer so long as the rich were less rich.” On the contrary, provided that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed and that all students perform better on average, I do not care about the attainment gap or inequality in the performance of students. The minds of young people can never be truly liberated when they themselves are imprisoned by a fanatical doctrine of destruction, propagating a counterproductive race to the bottom with the sole intention of fulfilling the dreams of Marx.
Of course it is true that middle class students have a higher chance of obtaining a place in grammars than their working class peers, but when is wealth never an advantage? No one can seriously claim that Donald Trump would enjoy the same level of grandiose proprietorship had he not been entrusted with “a small loan of a million dollars.” The same applies to David Cameron and the exorbitant number of his associates with whom he had associated during their days of strolling the backstreets of Eton. One way or another, the rich will always be able to exploit certain measures to better the chances of their children, whether it is through private schools, private tuition or by dominating the catchment areas of good schools. This is a desirable consequence of an economic system that harnesses the ingenuity of mankind and transforms it into a means of development. Even if the impact of money could be marginalised, we would still be ignoring a largely unspoken truth: middle class children are more intelligent than working class children since a middle class upbringing ultimately results in more discipline, respect, dedication, happiness and confidence which contribute to a child’s intelligence.
Rather than condemning the proposed enlargement of selective schooling with one of its natural failures, we should use this as an excuse to improve it. Entrance tests could be made more abstract to test the candidates’ ability to think, instead of their parents’ ability to open their wallets. A predetermined number of places should be withheld for entry in year twelve to give opportunities to those who realise their potential in the early years of secondary school.
At the same time however, pursuing the path advocated for in a preceding article about school vouchers would not be a viable proposal. The free market is magnificent and for extracting the maximum return from international commerce, there is no better model for mutual prosperity and trust. It regulates itself in a way that no government could even dream of and deems which businesses should survive and which should die through primordial evolutionary instincts – saving the best whilst destroying the weak. Nevertheless, there are parts of public life where the role of the market ought not to be expanded – it is the grey zone between optimal economic policy and practical political possibility.
In the health service, for example, private companies have the duty to offer a better service to those who can pay, unintentionally holding the government to account. Whilst I support an extension of privatisation – such as a small charge to access GP expertise – I do not believe that the general wellbeing of the people should be left in the hands of the vested interests of giant multinationals and a concept as ruthless as pure economic liberalism. The same applies to schools.
When we discuss education, we are discussing the future not only for young people, but for the country. It is a question of whether Britain sinks or swims in the competitive, globalised world. But more than that, it’s about preparing all children for a diverse society and instilling them with the values of tolerance, respect, disciple and, yes, pride in themselves and their country. This is not the job of a multinational corporation. Another repercussion of this idea would be the endless switching of schools as students hop from one to the next in the spirit of the envisaged competition. Good teachers, sufficient resources and a good atmosphere all contribute to success in the classroom, yet without stability, progress is impossible. Like with health care, the ruthlessness of market forces and the specific needs of children in education cannot coexist in such a way to appease parents, students and belligerent trade unionists simultaneously. In short, opening the education sector to the market would be as careless as allowing BP to draft the new climate change legislation.
To address the challenges posed by excessive bureaucracy, a higher level of devolution is required. Gone are the days when a government should control every aspect of a national policy without thoughtfully acknowledging the minutiae of local variances that render homogenous policies and centralisation wholly inappropriate. The government’s plans to allow more academies and free schools should be welcomed since it gives local authorities, councils and interest groups more flexibility when it comes to running the day to day aspects of a school. These new schools are also free of the national curriculum, anointing them a degree of independence that had previously been inaccessible and curtailing the role of the state to maximise value for money.
Grammar schools are not a fringe debate in a wider discussion on education because they stand in the spotlight of the issue. They give children from working class families a shot at achieving success that would otherwise be unattainable. They create an environment of discipline and pride that we all require to live as citizens in a multi-layered society. But more importantly, they represent the traditional freedoms that Britain has always embodied. In the event of a total abolition of selective education, every student would go to one type of school, removing the incentive for the brightest and best to push the boundaries of what is possible and destroy the one remaining agent of social mobility available to people in poor families – it would obliterate aspiration at a time when we need to aspire more.
Opposition from grammar schools comes from two distinct groups: On the one hand, there are the privately educated élites who feel that their position could be undermined by what must be viewed as the empowerment of the plebs. On the other, we see the champaign socialists like Jeremy Corbyn – himself a former grammar student – who seek to deprive future generations of the opportunities they enjoyed, in pursuit of an archaic ideology that puts equality of outcome above equality of opportunity.
No one claims to have the perfect solution to the multifaceted issues in our education system– neither school vouchers, grammar schools, academies, free schools nor a one-size-fits-all school is the silver bullet. Nevertheless, if we are serious about reinvigorating social mobility, if we care about allowing the poor to earn their way out of poverty, if we believe in freedom and the impassable benefits that it brings, grammar schools are not the problem, but the solution.