Back in the day, the 1970s day, I used to walk to school in the morning accompanied by a boy from the next block of council maisonettes to the one I lived in. I walked on to my Secondary Modern, and he stopped at the corner of the road where he got the bus to his Liverpool grammar school, SFX. If I remember rightly, his father worked on the docks and his mother worked in a ladies' clothes shop up the road called Ethel Austin’s.
I remember as clear as if it were yesterday the very last conversation we had. I was sixteen and it was one of my last days at school. We were discussing the future. I asked was he going to go to the docks to work with his Dad where he would be guaranteed a job, since his Dad was one of the hiring stevedores. His reply amazed me – he told me he was hoping to go to a University. I had never even heard the word before, never mind knowing what a University was.
Once he had explained I asked him which one he was going to go to, "Oxford, I hope" came the reply. My mind immediately focused on the practical issues such as the journey. How will you get there I asked, on the train? At which point he laughed. Not only had I not heard of a University, I had no idea where Oxford was in relation to Liverpool and how you could get there and back in one day.
He wasn’t the only person stood at the SFX bus stop. There were others all waiting for the buses to Waterloo Grammar, Liverpool College, and other well known grammar schools serving the area – and they were all going on to study at the best universities to become the scientists, doctors and bank managers of tomorrow. Last week, Michael Gove gave a speech in which he stated that “Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege” This speech was given only weeks after an all Parliamentary group of MPs and Peers published a report stating that social mobility had failed to improve since the 1970s.
It was during that decade when a Labour Education Minister, Tony Crosland vowed to shut down every grammar school in England, with the statement: “if it’s the last thing I do, I am going to destroy every f******g grammar school”, and he almost did. During his speech, Michael Gove highlighted the fact that high earning professions, the judiciary, the banking sector and the arts are dominated by those from the public school sector and said “ new young stars all have old school ties”.
As someone who is an ardent supporter of the grammar school system, I don’t find this remotely surprising. I am quite certain that the majority of those who are recruited to such positions today, despite their parentage and privilege, have been recruited on merit. The judiciary, the BBC and the financial sector want the very best. The problem is that the pool of talent to recruit the best from is now supplied by the private sector with a reduced pool of talent from the state sector but that wasn’t always the case – as I am sure Liverpool grammar school educated newsreader, Peter Sissons, could confirm.
The grammar school system took the able from poorer backgrounds, nurtured talent and academic ability and produced the stars of the day in a way it is almost impossible to do in either the comprehensive or academy system. In grammar schools, the base level of expectation, work ethic and standards of discipline were exceedingly high from day one. They provided an opportunity for aspirational poorer parents to aim for and there is no doubt that they secured the educational highway to real social mobility which Labour closed down.
The real cost of that disastrous Labour policy is what we have today – social stagnation, loss of opportunity and a dominance and resurgence of the old school network. Michael said: “When more Etonians make it to Oxbridge than boys and girls on benefit, then we know we are not making the most of all our nations' talents”. This is very true; however, for many parents, education now appears homogenous. For parents who are aspirational and for the percentage of children who are academically bright or artistically gifted, there is no obvious career path through the education system which places them on a level playing field with those educated at independent schools.
There is no longer a state school which matches the educational rigours and standards of any private school. The graduates of the private system are head and shoulders above others in terms of confidence. I applaud Michael Gove's candid approach in standing up and highlighting the problem of inequality – it’s a tough thing for an Education Secretary to do as, in making such a speech, he has set himself and the government a challenge in terms of how the problem is to be addressed.
I believe the answer is glaringly obvious. The private sector is selective. You need more than money to get your child into a private school. Private schools compete with each other on a commercial basis and seek to attract parents by producing astounding exam results. Pupils who don’t have the ability to do well are simply not accepted, no matter how much money they have, since no private school wants its exam results tainted by poor performance.
However unacceptable it may sound, in order to reduce inequality and provide real social mobility, the state sector also needs to reintroduce selection and expand the grammar school system. I think Michael Gove is one of our most outstanding Ministers and if anyone could do this, he could. And for those who think that’s a shocking suggestion, I would just like to point out that social mobility has stagnated since the 1970s, when the majority of grammar schools were shut down. I rest my case.