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John Bell was the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Wirral South in 2015.

A little background might explain my views on the grammar school debate although, given my experience, you might find my conclusions a little counter-intuitive.

I was brought up, one of six children, in the back streets of Liverpool. Dad cleaned ships’ boilers at Cammell Laird’s Shipyard but money always ran out before pay day. I was considered too thick to even take the 11-plus and after five years at Secondary Modern School, left at 15 without a qualification to my name. I had various jobs in industry but in my 30s, after studying at night school, I was offered a place at the University of Keele, graduating with a degree in Economics and Politics at the age of 40. There followed 25 years in education, teaching Economics, Business and Politics in secondary schools, then lecturing in FE and finishing with some years training apprentices in the workplace including Airbus Industries and Teaching Assistants. It was education that provided me with a career and the life I have now and even the opportunity to stand as a Parliamentary Candidate. It is education that could do so much to change the lives of so many from a similar background. This is why it is a passion of mine.

My concern, however, is that we are seeing a re-hash of the tired old, out-dated debate regarding grammar versus comprehensive schools which asks us to choose between two flawed systems. One based on the assumption there are only two kinds of pupils – those suitable for a more formal, academic education and the rest – and another based on there being one kind of pupil, all of whom should be taught together in all-too-often Secondary Modern Schools re-named (bog-standard) Comprehensives. Both systems have at their heart a lack of ambition for all our children.

The truth is, there are many kinds of children, each with their own talents, ambitions and dreams and our education system should, indeed must, cater for them all, allowing them to achieve all that their talents will allow. For all the reforms started by Michael Gove and the real improvements made, we are still a long way from that ambition. Far too many young people are still leaving school without the qualifications and skills needed to play a full part in work and society. My fear is the that the focus on grammar schools will distract us from that aim.

To begin with, it is pointless focussing on the secondary stage of education if our primary schools are not fit for purpose. By the time some arrive in Year 7 of secondary school the damage has already been done. Not having the basic skills required at that level, they drift through the remaining years, emerging little better educated than when they arrived with all the inevitable consequences of unemployment, welfare dependency and crime.  It is crucial, therefore, we ensure that pupils leave primary school with the literacy, numeracy and social skills appropriate for their age, even if it means holding them back for an extra year, otherwise any secondary provision will fail.

Nor is the alternative debate regarding formal academic versus vocational education the whole answer. All too often it is used to separate those failed by the primary system from the luckier ones. I say this as someone who has taught vocational subjects in school and the workplace and who believes it has an important part to play if used correctly.

From my 20 years in industry and more recent experience of 25 years in schools, FE and work-place training, I know that what employers need most of all is not necessarily technically skilled recruits, but well-educated, well-rounded young people with the right attitude to whom they can then add the necessary skills. By well-educated, I mean a good, wide-ranging, general education up to at least GCSE – particularly, but not restricted to, the all-important Maths and English at grade C. Here, of course is the heart of the debate; it is at this stage that some wish to separate into grammar/comprehensive or formal academic/vocational. This is based on a lack of ambition for the overwhelming majority of our children by schools, teachers, and all too often parents and the pupils themselves particularly in deprived areas of our country. Too often poverty is used as an excuse for lack of achievement when the real culprit is poverty of aspiration.

I believe that, whatever their background, the overwhelming majority of young people in this country could, with the right teaching, achieve that most basic of education up to at least five GCSEs including Maths and English at grade C to give them the start in life they need and a basic platform to build on.

It is at this point that decisions on their future education could then be made. Once this broad, general education is in place the answer is for a far greater diversity of choice. Not just between formal academic, comprehensive or vocational – that’s far too narrow. As I have said, all children have their own different aptitudes, skills and interests: art, music, languages, business, sport, science, technical skills and, yes, formal academic and vocational.

These need to be accommodated in real specialist establishments with selection by aptitude and achievement over time – not by an arbitrary exam on one day in a young person’s life – with movement between each other and, if appropriate, the work place in the form of commercial placements and apprenticeships. Crucial to this, of course, is that all routes should have parity of standards, funding and esteem otherwise we would simply return to the same old educational division of sheep and goats.

The reforms we have already made do lend themselves to this but don’t go far enough. The state system lacks the will, imagination and flexibility to achieve this but academies and, more likely, free schools provide a template. If our education system was opened up to the business as well as the voluntary sector with a brief to set up these schools, starting in the more deprived areas, we could see a renaissance of learning and skills that would go a long way to achieving a country that ‘works for everyone’.”

12 comments for: John Bell: Boiling the education debate down into grammars versus comprehensives misses the point

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