Michael Howard (Llanelli), John Humphrys (Cardiff), Dylan Thomas (Swansea), Anthony Hopkins (Cowbridge)… all great Welshmen helped on their way by grammar school education. It is little wonder that the Welsh Conservatives have started a debate about how academic selection might help to raise standards in state schools. As we approach the 70th anniversary of the ‘Butler’ Act of 1944, it is an opportune moment to take stock.
The 1944 Act was introduced by a Tory Secretary of State, but under a National Government with all-party support. As Labour’s spokesman John Parker said when the bill was introduced: “We welcome the intention to make secondary education available to the whole people and we think it right and proper that a Bill which will give secondary education to the whole people should be brought in by an all party National Government. We are particularly pleased to see the Tories accepting progressive ideas and I welcome the fact that the two main parties are collaborating in trying to pass this Bill as law. In all our big educational advances there has been a sharing of ideas.” (Hansard 19 January 1944).
Of course, Butler wasn’t inventing grammar schools; some of them were ancient foundations. He was simply opening them up to able boys and girls regardless of their financial circumstances. The party political controversy at the time was about the failure to take the opportunity of opening access to the great public schools as well.
Sadly, this consensus was not to last. It wasn’t the grammar schools that lost support; they became a powerful engine of social mobility for the post war generation. Instead, the British madness of always valuing the academic over the technical or vocational ensured that the other legs of the planned ‘tripartite’ system were never developed as they should have been. All too often, instead of the right school for the right pupil we saw successful grammar schools and poorly resourced secondary moderns. The technical schools which should have been a key part of the system often didn’t appear: certainly, they never enjoyed the esteem they would have had in Germany.
Faced with successful grammars and failing secondary moderns, the smart choice would have been to keep what worked and raise the standards of the rest. Instead most of England and Wales dumped the grammar schools. In 1998 Andrew Adonis described the dismal consequences: "The comprehensive revolution has not removed the link between education and class, but strengthened it… In 1965, the Labour-controlled House of Commons resolved that moving to a comprehensive system would preserve all that is valuable in grammar school education for those children who now receive it and make it available to more children. Few would maintain that this has in fact been the case."
"The comprehensive revolution tragically destroyed much of the excellent without improving the rest. Comprehensive schools have largely replaced selection by ability with selection by class and house price. Middle class children now go to middle class comprehensives. Far from bringing the classes together, England's schools – private and state – are now a force for rigorous segregation." (From "A Class Act: the Myth of Britain's Classless Society", by Andrew (now Lord) Adonis and Stephen Pollard).
Fortunately, some local authorities refused to follow the crowd and determined to keep their outstanding grammar schools. In my borough of Trafford, we have now built a system of which ‘Rab’ Butler would have been proud. The seven state grammar schools admit about a third of the cohort. Children who don’t go to grammar school are catered for by a range of outstanding high schools, each with its own specialism. Crucially, the standard of the high schools is such that if you took the grammar schools away (together with the most academic third of the borough’s children), Trafford’s results would still be better than the national average.
Michael Gove is doing a magnificent job of freeing schools to do what works best and to offer the choices that parents want. We are seeing academies and free schools taking root across the land and offering a wider choice to parents in the state sector. Freeing schools to select all or some of their intake would be an obvious extension of this diverse provision, but this freedom is still denied by a Labour law that looks increasingly out-dated.
If the ban on new selective schools was repealed, there would not be a head-long rush to build a grammar school in every town. I suspect we would see some new academic schools in the big cities – offering new opportunities for boys and girls in Moss Side, Hackney or Brixton. But we would also open the way for more of the creative thinking that has been shown by Angela Burns on behalf of the Welsh Conservatives. She is not talking about entrance exams at 11, but a process leading to selection at 14 based on the preferences of the child and the parents, in the light of recommendations from teachers. This method of selection works well in Germany and elsewhere.
The Welsh proposal is also an interesting perspective on the best age to select. Academic selection at 16 is widely accepted for entry to sixth form. When David Blunkett was Education Secretary, he saw 14 as a natural fork in the educational road and sought to develop a 14-19 curriculum; Angela Burns appears to have arrived at the same conclusion.
It would be nice to think that this policy proposal would be greeted not with knee-jerk opposition, but as a thoughtful contribution to an important debate about opening new opportunities for our children – a return to the “sharing of ideas” that gave birth to the 1944 Act. Sadly, Wales now lags far behind England in the development of choice and diversity in schooling; it is good to see Welsh Conservatives taking a lead in offering creative new ideas and models of education that will offer an important challenge to policy makers on both sides of the border.