Daniel Coughlan is a teacher in West Sussex.
The £50 million of funding announced yesterday to help expand existing grammar schools is extremely welcome. Parental demand and children’s needs will be better met. And some well-intentioned opponents of the move are in need of a grammar lesson. For grammar, unlike them, distinguishes clearly between the past, present and future. For the Government’s announcement doesn’t signal a return to the problems of the past. Rather, it is an improvement of existing provision that will help disadvantaged children in the future.
Grammar schools benefit the children they serve. Compared to their non-selective counterparts they are an impressive four times more likely to be rated outstanding by Ofsted and to send their pupils to study at Oxbridge. Yet they provoke fierce opposition – including from Michael Wilshaw, the former head of Ofsted. He’s complained that the existing grammars are “stuffed full of middle-class kids”, as if this was a self-evident evil. As a working-class boy from a failing inner-city comp, I’m left wondering what horrors I was spared – pupils brandishing fish knives in the playground, or using vulgar words like “pardon”?
But the Government has side-stepped such class prejudice by focusing not just on the expansion of existing grammars – which like all good state schools have given rise to selection by house price – by linking the new funding to a commitment to disadvantaged pupils. This will hopefully allow more suitable children, regardless of family wealth, gain a grammar school place. The National Association of Headteachers has branded yesterday announcement “an elitist policy”. But it is wrong to view grammar schools either as intellectually or socially elitist. Let’s look at these claims in term.
First, non-grammar schools are not inferior schools for offering fewer academic subjects, or studying them in less depth or at a slower pace (if that is what’s best for their pupils). Schools should be able to select and specialise for different children, including for different levels of potential. When I was eleven, my schoolmates and I would have all loved to join the Arsenal Academy, but, unlike for Jack Wilshere, it was not our level of football. No-one was wrongedL it’s just that excellence requires selection. And if some esteem academia to the exclusion of other avenues of excellence, whether sporting, musical, artistic, technical or the like, then let that remain their problem, and let children be themselves and fulfil their individual potential. Worthwhile parity amongst schools, free from misguided notions of elitism, is achieved by all schools achieving the best for their individual pupils.
Next, grammar schools don’t lead to social elitism. To think so is to misunderstand how society works. It flourishes when the individual flourishes. Perhaps the greatest tragedy in life is an individual’s unfulfilled potential, whether through a life cut short or inhibited by a person’s own lack of effort, or by an unfavourable environment. This impoverishes us all. It reflects the true relationship between individuals and society: excellent individual achievement is one that can positively contribute to society as a whole. Thus one of the most uncontroversial points that could be made in British society is that we are all indebted to the education of the elite naturalist, David Attenborough. Like so many of his contemporaries, he benefitted from the advantages of grammar school. It is, similarly, no coincidence that our two female Prime Ministers received a grammar school education. Expanding this ladder of social mobility does not favour or benefit a narrow elite – it is a societal good.
For most Conservatives, the responsibility to secure the most appropriate education for a child belongs to their parents. It is they who know their children best, and who are wholly committed to their good. Those who view education as primarily a function of the state are also perhaps in need of a grammar lesson – for grammar reminds us that it’s not enough to know the meaning of words: we also need to appreciate how they interrelate. This is particularly important when those words are: state, society, family and individual (here given in reverse order).
The role of the state is certainty an important one, in the lives of individuals, families and society as a whole. Some decisions, such as new international trade agreements, are proper to the state; but the state does well to respect, in ordinary circumstances, the principle of subsidiarity.
And just as the European Union fostered resentment by failing to respect this principle, so the Government could, too, through its parallel announcement to continue to restrict the freedom of parents to choose faith-based schools. For Ministers’ parallel decision not to reverse the 50 per cent cap on faith-based entry into free schools, but instead fund up to 100 per cent faith-based voluntary aided schools is a bit of a mystery.
Last year’s Conservative manifesto pledged to “replace the unfair and ineffective inclusivity rules that prevent the establishment of new Roman Catholic schools.” Although the Catholic Church has decried a U-turn by the Government, Ministers have, to be fair, replaced the long-absent lack of money for new voluntary aided schools (which can be faith-schools), and these can be up to 100 per cent selective on the basis of faith.
Damian Hinds was asked yesterday why the Conservatives had dropped their 2017 manifesto commitment to remove the 50 per cent cap on faith-based selection in free schools. The Education Secretary dodged the question, referring to the Government’s community integration strategy and a desire to promote community cohesion. This was grossly unfair to the vast majority of faith schools.
A recent joint statement from the Church of England, the Catholic Education Service, the Methodist Church in Britain & the Board of Deputies of British Jews – organisations that represent 99 per cent of all faith schools in England – said that: “our schools are drivers of community cohesion, whether that is through educating children from all cultures, creeds and communities, or the impressive programmes they run to connect their pupils with children from other religions and beliefs.” As a teacher who has worked in a variety of different schools, with various faith commitments and none, this has been my constant experience.
There is surely something amiss when the law requires Catholic school children to be turned away from Catholic free schools because they are Catholic. As recently as 2016, the Catholic Education Service estimated a need for roughly 20,000 new schools places, which equates to 35 to 40 new schools. It is thus the faith-based community that will feel most let down by Hinds’ announcement. The Government would do well to reassure all faith groups that it has no concerns about their commitment to what in each case is of central importance their faiths – i.e: the wider community.