I am not a huge fan of Theresa May. Her time as Home Secretary was plagued by a hopeless failure to meet immigration targets and the growth of a quasi-surveillance state. So it is with pleasant surprise that I greet her and education secretary Justine Greening’s brave foray into the potential of grammar schools.
I should declare an interest: I attended a grammar school, and benefited from it. Therefore I raise more of an eyebrow than most when I hear talk of how grammar schools tear across the social divide, relegating the have-nots to seven years of a status of failure while ensuring that the haves do not mix with a wide spectrum of society. For that is not the school I remember. I remember students scattered across the borough, from all areas, incomes, and households, and a variety of dialects and accents that reflected the geographical diversity of the area.
And by the way, what if the school were full of middle-class children? I resent the inverted snobbery that tells grammar school students that they will be socially deficient when they enter the real world. Are lower-income and middle-income teenagers really such alien species to each other?
Of course anecdotal evidence is secondary to statistical evidence, and if you were to plot a normal distribution curve of the household incomes of the students, and another of the area as a whole, I would wager that the former would be at least slightly skewed towards higher incomes. This is a problem endemic to modern grammar schools as a consequence of the scarcity of the schools. There will always be richer parents trying to buy their children’s way into grammar schools via tutors and private primary schools, and when there is a grand total of 164 in England, the admissions process resembles the rush for lifeboats on the Titanic. Hence the disproportionately low figures for grammar school pupils with free school meals should be treated with a pinch of salt, if not entirely dismissed.
Here I have a second interest to declare. I am not from a wealthy background, but was lucky enough to attend a Christian Brothers’ private school and for the final two years our timetables were largely dominated by verbal reasoning, maths, and English such that by the time the entrance exam to my grammar school arrived, I was drilled with military accuracy to answer each question. I owe an incalculable debt to this school and, while I have no regret or guilt, can I truly claim that this was fair?
There seem to be two obvious answers to this problem, and neither involve swinging a wrecking ball through the whole system. Rather, set up many more grammar schools and expand the rich opportunities that the schools provide beyond the fingertips of privileged parents and unlock the joy in learning too often crushed in the poor and bright.
Secondly, demand a broader system of evaluating the capacity for learning and application of knowledge than a glorified IQ test. This is one respect in which critics of grammar schools are almost indisputably right. Spending an hour working out which of four three-dimensional shapes is the odd one out or manipulating the alphabet in some curious way gives a school a pathetic indication of the industry or ability to retain and apply information that are far more indicative of a child’s success. If we are to segregate based upon ability at age 11, let us do it fairly and with due regard for the less examinable qualities of each individual. How to execute this is a more complicated matter but testing in a wider variety of subjects and considering monitoring more long-term performance would be a promising start.
In addition to acknowledging the difficult-to-evaluate ability of each child, grammar schools should also recognise the diverse development rates of pupils. There are many who only realise their true potential with the onset of adolescence. If there is a practical way to offer entrance examinations at, say, 13 and 15, to shut the door on late developers would be an outrage against fairness.
Another troubling yet unavoidable fact is the impossibility of universal perfection in any system. There will be winners and losers in reviving nationwide selective education, just as there are in the comprehensive system. Research by Santander concluded that house prices jolt by an average of £23,707 in the catchment areas of the best state schools, overwhelmingly comprehensives, an increase of 11%. Other comprehensives demand a demonstration of religious belief to qualify for admission. I happen to see inequality based upon merit as fairer than inequality based upon postcode or piety, and there is more of the former in an education system rich with grammar schools.
Indeed, diversity of teaching is an essential component in a competent education system. There are innovative teaching techniques that involve repeated engagement with students or that require a class splitting into groups and researching a particular topic before ‘pooling’ knowledge 20 minutes later. These are just as ineffective when applied to pupils most comfortable with less engaging, more traditional teaching as the converse. It is not that one set of pupils is objectively better or more potentially successful than another; it is a case that different pupils learn best in different ways. I recall teachers who were excellent at their jobs and worked marvels with pupils accustomed to the latter system but might have struggled in a different environment.
Nobody can sensibly claim that grammar schools are a silver bullet that will eradicate all problems in our national educational system, or that they are devoid of issues themselves. Learning occurs in the classroom, not in the Cabinet boardroom, and the greatest improvements will occur with better-tailored teaching rather than due to policy. Yet let us not assign true meritocracy and opportunity to their deathbeds by projecting evidence from a tiny fraction of schools and reaching hasty conclusions. The poor, the bright, and the forgotten have for too long been told that they are not worthy of the opportunity to prove themselves and that they will only see themselves as failures for trying, while the privileged are shepherded into more exclusive schools. May must find the courage to put this travesty right.