John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the teaching of reading and spelling.
Robert Richardson Grammar School was founded in 1910 by Ryhope miners who wanted an education for their children. It was one of the first schools to offer “advanced study”, the forerunner of A levels. Its most famous alumnus, Sir Thomas Allen, the international opera star, paid tribute to it in his inaugural address as Chancellor of Durham University, while describing his own childhood as “something out of a Catherine Cookson novel.” This was the experience of many other pupils. For New Labour’s David Blunkett, it was an “escape hatch”. For the pupils, it was a chance.
This school presents the clearest possible case of a grammar school as a vehicle for social mobility, and the comprehensive that replaced it shows what has been lost. Its ultra-progressive headmaster, Dick Copland, told his local newspaper that the grammar school had been “cut out”, using his three principles of mixed ability teaching, no corporal punishment, and no uniform. No rules either, or at least no rules “as such”. Mr Copland introduced himself to the pupils by saying, “My name is Richard Copland. Call me Dick”. My wife, a former pupil, tells me that the girls had no problem with this, though some preferred “Tricky Dicky.”
The former grammar school pupils continued to wear their uniform, partly to make a point, and partly because most could not afford to replace it. We now have uniform in almost all primary as well as secondary schools, and it promotes cohesion, pride and an ethic of work. Mixed ability removed the school’s intellectual core, and the former grammar school staff soon left.
This included the physics teacher, who was not replaced, as physics was an elitist subject. My wife had to do the second year of her A level physics course from a textbook, without a teacher. The class kept each other going, and a few passed. They did not know that Mr Copland had a degree in physics, and could have taught the class himself.
“Call me Dick” wrote extensively about comprehensive education, including a book, Lessons In Class, endorsed by Tony and Caroline Benn. In the year it was published, John-Paul Flintoff wrote Comp, a devastating account of the Benns’ favourite, Holland Park. He describes incessant verbal, violent and sexual assaults by dominant pupils, terrorising both pupils and staff, drug-dealing, suicide and murder. The school’s retreat from legitimate rules had allowed the imposition of others based on brute force – even the head was beaten up, and had both of his ankles broken.
Dick and the Benns have had many followers, among them a generation of statistical manipulators who have created a spurious intellectual justification for this process of destruction, usually based on Labour’s undue emphasis on Grade C at GCSE. The benchmark in this debate is not grade C, but grades A and A*. These are the grades that lead to social mobility for those who cannot make their way through family connections and the old school tie. However, from the early days of the Coalition, schools have not been obliged to publish them, but are allowed to produce redacted versions that let them cherry pick strengths and hide basic weaknesses. This should be reversed, beginning with the 2016 results.
One result from Mossbourne shows what can be achieved by grouping pupils according to their abilities from the start of secondary school, and then making the most able pupils work to the limit of their ability. In 2010, its first year of GCSE results, Mossbourne’s top sets achieved 24 A* passes in German, and 28 in Spanish. These are the best results from single classes I’ve ever seen.
Whether we would be moving to the return of grammar schools had all schools taken Mossbourne’s approach, rather than that of Educating Yorkshire, we cannot tell. We can, though, be sure that the proponents of the mixed ability and equality of outcomes agenda still control far too much of education, and will fight to the end for what they believe in. It is time for those of us who believe in genuine education to show the same determination.