Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist and writer.
At the end of his article a week ago today on the notion of ‘Meritocracy Schools’, Paul Goodman wrote of “a topic which tends to exercise the centre-right less, but should preoccupy it more: namely, providing better education and training for students who are not academically strong.”
In my view, those who wish to see grammar schools return must become the fiercest advocates for the restoration of British vocational education – for they will never see the former without the latter.
It was the failure of the ‘Tripartite System’ to live up to its name and furnish technical schools that first fatally undercut public support for grammars, by leaving those children who didn’t get in with no alternative and equivalent route to success.
Whilst countries such as Germany – with British assistance, no less – developed world-beating, industry-focused vocational learning systems, at home we slipped into a “best and the rest” model which ill-served an awful lot of children and quite naturally bred resentment.
This problem persists to this day. In a recent series of hearings by the Education Select Committee on the state of apprenticeships and traineeships for young people, the most consistent message from witnesses was the need to tackle the widespread public perception that vocational learning was somehow “second rate”.
This perception has had an awful lot of government reinforcement in recent decades. Comprehensive schools cleave to the academic model, and often lost those things like carpentry and metalworking classes which once gave the practically-minded the opportunity to hone their own talents. Attempts to improve the status of polytechnics led to them being “upgraded” into second-rate universities, rather than cherished in their own right.
To cap it all, Tony Blair set out to get 50 per cent of all school-leavers into university, turning three years of expensive academic education into the default position for many school-leavers who might have profited from more practical alternatives – or even from going straight into a job, many of which were lifted beyond their reach by the grade inflation unleashed by each fresh flood of graduates.
All of this is profoundly unhelpful to champions of grammar schools. So long as the academic curriculum is the be-all and end-all of a child’s perceived accomplishments, nothing which so clearly divides pupils by ability is going to win widespread acceptance from those whose own children fall on the wrong side of the line. John Prescott’s charge that grammar schools brand children “failures” will continue to stick.
For this reason, the many Conservatives – myself included – who count themselves friends of grammar schools should treat the drive for a world-class vocational alternative not as a worthy but separate battle but as critical to our own cause.
Obviously such a course of action has plenty of sound justifications in its own right: it would equip the UK with a skilled future workforce in the way mass university education was meant to; and be a boon to the tens of thousands of gifted, practically-minded children failed by the comprehensive system but ill-suited to grammar schools.
But from the point of view of grammar school campaigners, such a renaissance in technical education would provide the necessary political environment for specialist academic schools to flourish again, with academic excellence a path but not the path to a rewarding career and personal success.
A zealous Tory crusade on the subject might also leave a lasting impression on those parents who, rightly or wrongly, fear that we seek simply to re-establish elite schools for our children at the expense of their own.
So when we celebrate those selective schools opening satellite campuses which amount to the first new grammar schools in decades – and we absolutely should – let’s also make time to shout about University Technical Colleges. Let’s try to hold the Government to account for its record on apprenticeships, as well as on the EBacc.