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England’s new grammar schools: playing with fire?

Written by Glen O’Hara.

Prime Minister Theresa May has recently announced that she wants to allow more selection by ability in England’s schools, and will remove New Labour’s ban on expanding or opening grammar schools. Now that’s probably because she wants to appeal to older voters who might be tempted to come over from the United Kingdom Independence Party to the Conservatives. Maybe she also wants a flagship policy that will stamp her authority on the Government, or a new initiative that will stake out her differences with outgoing premier David Cameron. If so, she should be careful what she wishes for: because grammar schools are an academic, intellectual and above all politicalhazard that might be best avoided.

We’ve been here before. The grammar schools that dominated many post-war Britons’ imaginations – either set up under the 1944 Education Act, or newly-accessible for free by any children who passed the famous 11+ examination – were a subject of enormous controversy when both Labour and Conservative administrations abolished most of them in the 1960s and 1970s. But there was lots of very good reasons why they did that. They weren’t just driven by ideological fury, whatever myth-making you may read or hear from grammars’ advocates. No: the reason that politicians took the system apart in those two decades is that the scholarly, popular and political consensus upon which any success might have rested collapsed before the whole system had been in operation for even a few years.

You can read all about this if you’d like, because (ahem) this blogger has already written about exactly that process, in chapter nine of a book about post-Second World War governance in general. What were the processes that brought the brief golden age of the state grammar to a close – closing or merging schools that formed a huge chunk of the secondary sector, and shaking up a much, much more significant slice of the schools system than Mrs May will probably ever dare to even tinker with?

First reason: parents’ views of education were changing. Most children never went to grammars. They had to go to secondary moderns, if they ‘failed’ academic aptitude tests, pushed into schools which never really developed an ethos or educational rationale of their own. This was inevitably very unpopular, and parents’ patience soon began to run out. No longer would they accept the majority of their children attending poorly-equipped and badly-run schools until they could be released from what often amounted to little more than a holding pen at the age of fifteen. Just one instance of this: a popular Campaign for Education, mounted in 1963-64, both helped put pressure on the flagging Conservative government of the time, and helped to implant the idea of better education for all children in the public consciousness as an unalloyed good. Ministers of all partiesbegan to feel that they could not possibly relegate most voters’ children to the academic sidelines – a burgeoning acceptance of reforms’s necessity that was then reinforced by a revolution in the way education was conceptualised, let alone experienced.

So, secondly: the 11+ exam that decided which schools children went to at the age of eleven rested on the idea of stable IQ tests that could objectively tell which children were ‘suited’ to the grammar school, or the Secondary Moderns and Technical Schools to which other children were to be apportioned. But an increasing number of university studies showed that IQ score reports were very unstable, and subject to change for the same children over time – damning enough for a supposedly ‘scientific’ process. And even more lethal to the tests’ credibility was that evidence quickly mounted that supposedly academic testing was in fact a form of social selection (just as it still iswhere the 11+ survives) – a test than ran the sliderule over ways of scanning, thinking, problem selection and language that owed much more to young people’s replication of their home environment than any future abilities they might be able to draw on.

Third and last: education spending was gradually coming to be seen as a necessary outlay for upgrading the nation’s human capital. The Soviets and the Americans were pouring money into science, technology and engineering in schools, the argument went: Britain must follow their lead. Though there was a great deal of the fashionable techno-nationalism of the era bound up in all that – as if national virility and honour could not be sated without splurging money here, there and everywhere – the idea that education spending would garner a return for everyone gained a hold. Why, then, spend much of that money – and reserve all the qualifications – on just the small number of children who might emerge from poorer backgrounds and do well in these schools? The idea made no sense at all. Training accountants, lawyers and army officers was fine. But who was going to check on the abilities and progress of the black-coated technical workers so beloved of a technocrat such as Harold Wilson?

No-one in Whitehall or Westminster had much of an answer to these growing parental demands, the end of selection’s academic credibility, nor the new idea that education overall was a national investment rather than a personal test. Or, at least, they had no idea of how to meet any of those challenges without rowing back from selection at the age of eleven. So one civil servant accepted privately in 1960 that: ‘the system under which failure to win a place in a selective school at 11+ meant complete and irrevocable denial of the coveted opportunities associated with a grammar school education could not hope to win the support of parents, and could not survive the day when their wishes could gain a hearing’. While another feared that, should they do nothing about Secondary Moderns’ apparent disregard for most pupils’ prospects, ‘this country is pouring out its human wealth like water on the sands’. There wasn’t much arguing with either case. That’s why comprehensives are there – not as some theoretical experiment, but as the most practical and semi-popular system Ministers from both main parties thought they could press into the service of national re-training and efficiency.

If Mrs May goes too far down this track – if all this means more than just a few satellite schools and extra classrooms here and there – then all of that parental angst is going to come her way. All that ‘failure’ is going to be placed at her door. And all that pouring out of human capital, so obvious now as it was then – and the waste and hurt and confusion that selection at eleven involves – will get blamed on her. Most parents are not going to like this. They are going to get very, very anxious. Things could get ugly. It’s not much of a sell for any politician.

Grammars were abolished because politicians came to understand that they were toxic in the country, and harmful to the economy. Now that we need every single individual’s skills to be stretched to the utmost (especially when Mrs May’s own government wants to reduce immigration), and now that parents have mounting educational expectations for their offspring that seem to surge ever upwards with every passing year, the only thing that’s changed is that a return to academic selection could shred even more reputations than it threatened to in the ‘sixties.

So here’s what we think: the new grammars policy will be watered down until it is very, very dilute indeed: or it will become a long-running sore that will cause Mrs May more trouble than any extra reservoir of votes is worth. This idea has got trouble written all over it, right from the start.

Glen O’Hara is a Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. This article was first published on the Public Policy and the Past blog and can be found here. Image credit: CC by Number 10/Flickr.

Published inBritish PoliticsConservativesPolitics

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