The left’s failure to embrace school standards has opened the door to grammars’ return

by Kevin Meagher

The debate about grammar schools should have been over and done with a generation ago.

After all, it was a system that locked-in the most appalling social inequality.

If you passed your 11-Plus exam, you went to grammar school, with an effective guarantee of a professional career and life membership of the middle class.

If you failed it – because you were poorly on the day of your exam, or dyslexic, or for any other reason – you went to Secondary Modern school, where you would learn to ‘do something with your hands.’

A broadly-based education was not for the likes of you. Like the Epsilons in Huxley’s Brave New World, you were bred for drudgery.

It was a wicked system that divided families and communities, perpetuating ridiculous assumptions about intelligence and by extension, the worth, of tens of millions of people over decades.

By disregarding the talents of so many, so early and so utterly, it fuelled strife in industrial relations that bedevilled post-war Britain.

The former Conservative trade and industry secretary, Peter Walker, remarked in his autobiography that Britain’s post-war economic history might have been better had the wily, aggressive, intelligent but untutored trade unionists he dealt with led British industry, while passive, uninspiring business executives had instead become servile trade union leaders.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the effective abolition of grammars, led in no small part led by middle class parents who found their own children failing to get into them, was a seminal moment in making Britain a fairer and better country.

And, by delicious irony, it was Margaret Thatcher as education secretary under Ted Heath who got rid of many of them.

But the left has always been complacent about what came next. It was never enough to simply create comprehensive schools; they needed to be as good as the grammars they replaced.

They needed to show that the two-thirds of kids written-off at age eleven, were indeed smart enough to warrant receiving a rounded education. All they needed was a fair chance.

And this was indeed the promise back in the 1960s – that comprehensives would be as good as grammars – but it was an idle boast.

Instead, a different pattern emerged. The middle classes go private if they can afford to, or strain to fit into the right catchment for high-performing comprehensives, often affecting a miraculous Christian faith to blag their way into an Anglican or Catholic school.

Demotivated teachers left in ‘bog standard’ comprehensives serving sink estates continue to try and make water flow uphill, dealing with kids who can’t speak English or arrive at school half-fed.

To this day we pretend the system is equal, but it isn’t. Schools that struggle to live up to the virtuous comprehensive ideal are left to atrophy.

But allowing them to fail, to go unchallenged, is a betrayal of the children who attend them and who simply drop-off the educational conveyor belt at sixteen, straight into the rubbish bin.

The left, traditionally more bothered about liberal teaching and sating the demands of the lunatic teaching unions, excuses educational failure and poor teaching in a mistaken belief that equality of opportunity – all must have the chance of a comprehensive education – is the same as equality of outcome – that every child should leave school having been intellectually stretched to maximise their potential.

Even Tony Blair was wary of a full-frontal assault on this complacency, showering the schools system with funding but not setting the clear, unambiguous goal that every child should be expected to succeed and receive a clear pathway in life, with tough penalties for those parts of the system that are not delivering it.

His ad hoc creation of academies was a means to provide better local leadership, thus allowing improvements to bubble to the surface. What was needed, however, was a strong top-down approach making clear that every child must be valued and nurtured, no matter what the obstacle.

As a result, the tyranny of low expectations still holds sway over too many children’s lives.

The failure to grasp the issue of educational standards and social mobility head-on and win it for the left has now created space for a Conservative Prime Minister to begin rolling us backwards to those dark days when a third of kids were valued and two-thirds were not.

It must have escaped Theresa May, but there is nothing to ‘make with your hands’ these days. In any event, a country is not a marketplace. It is madness to welcome-in immigrant labour to fill skilled jobs because we have failed to sufficiently educate our own people to perform them.

The moral mission of state schooling should be to ensure that every child finds their talents and meets their potential. Children don’t fail, the system does. No leaky classroom, flaky teacher, coasting head or idle governing body should deny them their chance in life.

The bright vision of comprehensive education promised so much but we have let its potential slip through our fingers by not ensuring high quality schooling for all.

The inexorable result is Theresa May’s retrograde and pessimistic plan for grammar schools.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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3 Responses to “The left’s failure to embrace school standards has opened the door to grammars’ return”

  1. madasafish says:

    No leaky classroom, flaky teacher, coasting head or idle governing body should deny them their chance in life.

    The teaching unions will have your head. They oppose any effort to control teaching standards,

    My experience – when my children were young so now out of date- was that some state schools were very good – and a lot more were useless with teachers who were totally unsuited to be teachers..(Which was what I thought when I was a pupil half a century ago)

    Any Party which is supported by teaching unions is – in my view – unsuited to and incapable of sorting out the issues involved.
    Too many vested interests.

  2. Tafia says:

    I am the eldest child of four, to an abandoned mother. In and out of local authority care. Brought up on a sink estate, on social security, uniform grants and free dinners.

    I passed 11+ and went to grammar, as did my two younger sisters. They had been done away with by the time the youngest got to that age.

    It was great. Bring them back. There is nothing wrong with standards. Incidentally, many people seem to have forgotten there was a 12+ as well for late developers that failed the 11+

    Incidentally, when my two daughters went to high school I got them into the local Catholic one even though they are protestants – because it was more disciplined and the children as a result better behaved.

    Basic educational standards have declined in this country to such an extent that my previous employer (over 10,000 in the UK alone) would not give any applicants an interview until they sat nd passed a basic comprehension test, basic spelling test and basic maths test – and you’d be surprised how many graduate applicants failed.

  3. Peter Kenny says:

    The call to bring back grammars has some spurious popularity – the call to bring back secondary moderns somewhat less so!

    Of course many grammars even failed in their own terms – a significant percentage of pupils left with no qualifications, how could that be so?

    In reality the call for grammars is a classic ‘dead cat’ to please the Tory base and distract from Brexit woes. It won’t happen.

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