John Bald is a former teacher, educational adviser and Ofsted lead inspector. He now works as an independent consultant and offers free help to people with educational problems.
For the past 50 years, education in England and Wales has been dominated by a single ministerial circular issued in July, 1965, backed by this resolution:
‘”That this House, conscious of the need to raise educational standards at all levels, and regretting that the realisation of this objective is impeded by the separation of children into different types of secondary schools, notes with approval the efforts of local authorities to reorganise secondary education on comprehensive lines which will preserve all that is valuable in grammar school education for those children who now receive it and make it available to more children; recognises that the method and timing of such reorganisation should vary to meet local needs; and believes that the time is now ripe for a declaration of national policy.”
All the big issues are here. We still need to raise standards at all levels and to make the strengths of grammar schools available to more children – Sir Michael Wilshaw has described Mossbourne as “a grammar school with a comprehensive intake”. We are still divided over whether selective education impedes or promotes high standards. Grammar schools at the time of reorganisation were doing well, and often very well, for their pupils. Sir Thomas Allen, international Opera star and inspiration for Billy Elliott, was a pupil of Robert Richardson Grammar School, Ryhope, founded by miners to educate their children.
He praised his education in his inaugural address as Chancellor of Durham University, and my wife, who attended the same school, sees it as her own route from a dying mining village – Tony Benn closed the pit – to a university education and career in clinical research. The 160 or so grammar schools that have survived continue this tradition, and the best have updated it to include a modern understanding of personal responsibility. Most comprehensives do not operate to this standard.
The former schools minister Lord Adonis, called schools like that “secondary modern comprehensives”, and Alastair Campbell, who has a way with words, “bog standard”. By the end of the Blair years, Labour was desperate to salvage something from its 50 year project and did not just close a school that was among the worst in London – Hackney Downs – but obliterated all trace of it. The result was Mossbourne Community Academy, where Sir Michael Wilshaw installed a regime based on hard work matched to children’s needs – i.e: setting rather than mixed ability teaching – and smashed previous expectations of comprehensive schools. The Academy idea was shown to work.
Mosbourne, and the other top-flight academies, have given us a three-cornered fight. Some on our side point to comprehensive failure and want a return to grammar schools. Some on the Labour side point to comprehensive failure and want academies. In the third corner are those, mostly on the old Left of the Labour side, who continue to blame educational failure on social circumstance and conservatism, and who say that comprehensives have never had a fair chance.
In some places, these, our most fervent opponents, have a point. You can’t take an town like Southend-on-Sea, with four grammar schools and just eight other secondaries, and pretend that the others are genuine comprehensives. However, their case has a social rather than educational basis, so that they term themselves, accurately enough, the local schools network.
In the early rounds of the debate, Iain Macleod, then editor of The Spectator, said it was all a question of arithmetic. If the best schools are only open to 25-30 per cent of the population, there is no reason for anyone else to vote for them. So, Margaret Thatcher presided over the closure of more grammar schools than Labour had.
But then factors other than educational merit began to dominate. Progressives, most of them to the Left of Labour’s mainstream, actively campaigned against maintaining the strengths of grammar schools by imposing mixed ability teaching wherever they could, ignoring examination success as far as possible, and giving education a focus that was overwhelmingly social rather than intellectual. I lived and worked through those years in Ken Livingstone’s ILEA, doing my best to teach children to read while the authority clearly did not give a damn whether anybody could read or not.
This dispute remains at the heart of two of our three corners, and could be brought down to Sir Michael v Jonny Mitchell, and the other heads featured by Channel 4. Sir Michael believes that his approach, which has been shown to work beyond his influence, can deliver the goods fairly, without favouring those who can afford to cram their children at primary level in order to give them an advantage at the eleven plus.
This is one reason why prep schools and tutors do well in eleven plus areas, as grammar schools provides education at least on a par with that of private day schools, without the expense. On the other hand, even ARK can only do so much, and only a handful of other academy chains have shown that they are in the same league. Why not expand grammar schools too, or allow existing ones to open satellites?
Legally, we can’t. S39 of Labour’s iniquitous – it also wrecked Ofsted – 2006 Schools and Inspections Act prevents the opening of new selective schools, and a satellite of an existing school in a different town is highly likely to be seen as a new school in law. No-one has the votes to repeal it, and the impasse is completed by the political impossibility of closing any more.
Enter UKIP, which wants a grammar school in every town – and has shown, as Grant Shapps has pointed out, that it takes votes from Labour and seats from us. Theresa May has supported grammar school extension in her constituency and has not been accused of nastiness. The real nasties are the people who force parents to send their children to poor schools that put a lid on their dreams. The real policy of the Local Schools Network is Hobson’s Choice, even if Hobson bears a passing resemblance to Mr Bumble. One of my own pupils was recently told by one such that he had no talent for rugby, shortly before he was scouted to train with the local professional side.
We can say with certainty that the 1965 “declaration of national policy” in favour of comprehensive schools is dead. There is no national policy, no national agreement, and comprehensives are no longer a vote winner. We can nearly all agree that every child needs to be educated to the limit of his or her abilities, although the Left don’t, as this interferes with equality, and that we need good provision for pupils’ personal development and sense of responsibility. The last men standing from our three corners are Sir Michael Wilshaw’s academies and grammar schools. It is not necessary for one of them to knock the other out.