Damian Green is a former Immigration and Policing Minister, and is MP for Ashford.
As a committed moderniser, I am perhaps counter-intuitively delighted that the grammar school debate has been revived by Conservative Voice, and will happily support their campaign to allow new grammar schools to be created. I see this is not as a move to “bring back” the old system in which there were only two types of school, and you were sent on one path at the age of 11. Rather, this is the logical next step in the increased variety of secondary schooling which is now on offer because of Michael Gove’s reforms.
Indeed, I see the creation of new grammar schools as squarely in line with the thinking that lay behind a previous generation of reform, when the last Labour Government allowed specialist schools to develop. This gave rise to the slightly perverse situation whereby the state would offer a school which could stretch you to the limit if you were good at sport, languages, or science…but forbade by law a school stretching you to the limit if you were just generally good at school.
Of course, this perversity was a result of our perennial agonising about class. A great sin in education was allowing the middle class to gain an advantage for their children, since this was unfair. I rather agree with the thinking behind this, but it seems to me that rather than preventing the creation of excellent academic schools, our modern response should be to continue the improvement in primary schools so that all children can have the chance to show their full academic potential. Let’s level up, not down. Let’s allow a variety of schools in any one area, so that parents can choose what they want for their children.
The opponents of grammar schools argue that they were always, and are still, only meritocratic on the surface, as statistically they gave places to only a small proportion of those on free school meals. The modern figures, at a time when we have very few grammar schools which are heavily concentrated in certain areas of the country, are as a result not representative. They mostly reflect the social composition of those areas (notably Kent and Buckinghamshire) in which the grammar schools have survived. And the older figures reflect a society which was more stratified, and in which indeed some working class parents refused to send their children to the local grammar school even if they had qualified, on the ground that they would not fit in. Thankfully, we have moved on from that.
The ideal set-up for new grammar schools (and let’s maybe create a different name for academically focussed schools) would be for them to be established to attract pupils from a wider area than before, whether across a city or rural area. This would prevent the creation of sink schools in an individual area, because the grammar school would be attracting its pupils from a number of different catchment areas. So there would not be a binary divide in a local area, but a widening of the choice available across, for example, a whole city. Comprehensives would survive in this system, catering for parents who preferred their children to attend this type of school.
The biggest boon of new grammar schools would be a widening of the pool of those going on to the top universities. Creating opportunity for those from non-privileged backgrounds is the essence of good conservatism. It is morally right that individuals should be judged on merit, and economically necessary if we are to succeed as a country. My least favourite political cliché is the “public school and Oxbridge” criticism from the left. Oxford, Cambridge and other top universities make great efforts to find the brightest students from anywhere. It is not their fault if we have over decades reduced the chances of clever children from poor backgrounds being able to demonstrate their ability by the time they reach 18. When we had grammar schools all over the country, “Oxbridge” was much less a domain of the privately educated than it later became.
Precisely because we now have Univesity Technical Colleges, and other schools which will bring out different talents in children, so that we can genuinely promise them a chance in life whether or not they have an academic bent, it is right to create specialist academic schools. It is often observed that we have some of the best schools in the world, but that the vast majority of the British population cannot afford to send their children to them. One solution would be to destroy what makes those schools great. That would be educational vandalism. A better response is to widen opportunity for a specialist academic education to the many, not the few.