As with several other topical policy areas, education faces a most dreadful fate: it has become a political tug-of-war. The ‘red team’ versus the ‘blue team’ with occasional help from the ‘yellows’, with the handkerchief that is education constantly yanked one way or another. Thus, the Prime Minister and trade unions, educationalists and academics have all taken to their respective sides and continue to heave in opposite directions. Our latest heave being the highly public government remarks concerning the repeal of the ban against new grammar schools and suggestion of a fresh wave of grammar schools in the future.
At first glance, Britain’s state education system can be seen as something of an academic minefield. What with our first schools, infants and junior schools, middle schools, comprehensives, secondary moderns, colleges, sixth form, faith schools, free schools, academies, and the 164 remaining grammar schools, and that’s just England; a truly never-ending smörgåsbord of varied educational institutions.
However, for the sake of simplicity our political tug-of-war since 1945 has been largely a two-way battle between the comprehensive school system and selective grammar schools. The first two decades following the War witnessed the eminence and growth of grammar schools across the country. Very much academically orientated and with entrance based upon an entrance exam taken at the age of eleven, selecting only the highest achievers. And yet later, under successive Labour governments, the very many grammar schools quickly fell away in favour of new comprehensive schools with a broader programme of learning and no selection process.
For the more than thirty years since comprehensive schools became mainstream, the call for a return of grammar schools has rung out. Large swathes of the Conservative grassroots and many parliamentary circles too have repeatedly bellowed out in unison with much of the press in favour of the return of grammar schools.
Now here is where I must take issue. What is the use of repeating a frankly tired debate over and over? Both models have their merits but also considerable drawbacks, so why bother re-salvaging one school system or another under the illusion that it is somehow a new idea.
Grammar schools give bright children from poorer backgrounds the best start in life! Comprehensive schools don’t test children at an unfairly young age that could ignore talented children at an older age! Unlike grammar schools where success is promoted, comprehensive schools often see the smartest students bullied or held back! Grammar schools fail to engage children with fellow students from diverse backgrounds, building up those key social skills! Neither do grammar schools always fully engage students in the arts, technical studies or sport! And so on, and so forth.
Over the years tweaks to the arguments have been suggested, such as a second opportunity for students to take an entrance exam at a later age, but aside from these minor alterations no major new strand of thought has gained any real traction in political debate.
In 2014, the then Education Secretary Michael Gove (not normally a fan) caused something of a public row when he espoused a one line vision that he wished it to one day be impossible to distinguish between a state school and a private school. Naturally, the traditional stalwarts of the education debate readily hounded him. Those pro-comprehensive advocates decried Gove as a typical out-of-touch Tory with little understanding of the very clear differences between a school for the many and a fee-paying school for the few. Grammar school cheerleaders, such as the plain speaking historian and broadcaster David Starkey, harked back to their days at grammar school and how it really was most similar to your middle ranking private school. Perhaps Gove (really not normally a fan) was indeed making an insightful point as to what the future may hold for education in this country. Though it wasn’t to be, this, albeit far-fetched, idea was gobbled up into the ongoing tussle.
Those working in the most high-achieving and influential professions, whether law, finance, business or medicine are disproportionately from private school backgrounds. Our national politicians, most successful academics, and fantastically successful Olympians also hail from private education en masse. In the immediate years after the War Clement Attlee’s government considered the radical move of abolishing private fee-paying education and simply incorporating the schools into a comprehensive system. The political capital at the time was never there, and it is unlikely it ever will be. Neither is it particularly likely that such a sweeping change would have been possible to execute or particularly beneficial to the country. Instead of fresh calls for their abolition, maybe the bar of excellence set out by private schools is part of developing the way forward and leaving behind the arguments of old.
Those who have climbed to the heights of British society have in many cases had a private education to thank for their success. Broadening the base of those going to schools of this standard could be an excellent way to bring about excellence for all. To achieve this noble aim, more than just a pretty handout from private to state schools is required. Instead, a real throwing open of the doors is essential, so all our schools in the state sector can boast similar successes and accolades to their private school counterparts.
It’s time to leave behind the two tiring and flagging arguments that have plagued the education debate for three quarters of a century. There are two sides to every coin, but this one is no longer legal tender I’m afraid. It’s not simply about who is going to which school but instead about what a school can accomplish that is most important. In a time of often painful and unnecessary austerity we shouldn’t let meaningful reform fall to the wayside, if we’re to exit the current rut it’s going to need serious political willpower, plenty of time and dedicated individuals from the bottom up, but most importantly, a serious injection of cash.
By Lloyd Hatton
About the Author
Lloyd Hatton, a native of Dorset, now a resident of London. Based at Queen Mary University of London. Lloyd also writes with the Politics Made Public magazine along with being its current Editor in Chief. A keen follower of party politics and domestic current affairs Lloyd was an activist with the Britain Stronger In Europe campaign and worked with production teams in developing televised election debates in 2015. More recently Lloyd has worked with the Hillary for America campaign in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary and interned with the Democratic Party in the swing state of Florida. His preferred topics have focussed upon the rise of UKIP in British Politics and examining topical issues of the day such as immigration and the Brexit debate. Also fond of Labradors, food and the theatre.