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De-educating Britain

Peter Hitchens’ new book details how the destruction of grammar schools has betrayed children from modest backgrounds

Taking leave of Downing Street in October, Liz Truss assured Britain that its best days were ahead of her. For our self-confessed cultural eulogist Peter Hitchens, they are long gone, not least due to the educational self-destruction detailed in his new book.

In A Revolution Betrayed, How Egalitarians Wrecked the British Education System, the veteran columnist outlines the “series of accidents” that resulted in the revolutionary establishment of nationwide schooling, in which selection by ability allowed millions of British children from modest backgrounds to escape poverty for the first time.

He correctly dismisses the lazy assumptions of the anti-grammar ranks, which accuse pro-grammar individuals of seeking a return to the exact education system that existed prior to their enforced decline from 1965. 

He mourns not for a pristine past, but a future that never was

Hitchens never wanders into the bleary-eyed nostalgia the cultural right is routinely accused of. He mourns not for a pristine past, but a future that never was.

He explains that the 1944 Act never truly launched the semi-mythical tripartite system. Its proposals for technical schools never came to fruition, and the less academically rigorous Secondary Moderns were never intended to help students gain academic qualifications. Thus they should not be judged on their fulfilment of these criteria. The popularly maligned SecMods were the first fumbling attempt at national secondary education and cannot sensibly be compared to their historic counterparts. 

Rather embarrassingly, Hitchens references a 1983 report that showed these intended “paradises of self-expression” still managing to academically outperform their comprehensive successors. This should put to bed the fear-mongering swathes of the comprehensive faithful still deploy about the SecMods in an attempt to dismiss the merits of selections.

Hitchens even showcases the many stories of students who transferred to a grammar school after showing academic potential after age eleven. Of course, some bright children did not or could not transfer and were left disappointed by their failure to gain a grammar school place, but surely this is an argument that they should have been better expanded rather than scrapped?

A key factor in the bipartisan betrayal of the grammars was the Conservatives’ failure to expand them in advance of the wholly predictable strain they would come under as the “Baby bulge” reached schooling age in the 1950s. It is astounding how this fact is almost universally omitted from increasingly irregular rows over the issue in mainstream media.

Perhaps one reason why the pro-grammar cause has never been thoroughly resurrected, is that there is no obvious person or party to blame for their betrayal. As Hitchens details, Labour radicals and the inertia of Tories — including multiple Prime Ministers who owed their social climb to selective schooling — made sure the destruction of the grammar epoch was a thoroughly ecumenical effort.

A Revolution Betrayed, Peter Hitchens (Bloomsbury Continuum, £20)

Hitchens admits that it is impossible to know exactly how Britain would function today if the grammars had survived. We can be almost certain that the potential of countless working and lower-middle-class children is being scuppered by the failed comprehensive experiment that leaves a third of Brits functionally illiterate.

The chattering classes plainly enjoy sermonising their hollow promises to “level up” Britain and bemoan economic and security threats from abroad, whilst refusing to admit what any serious culture must stomach: that human divergences exist, and education must accommodate them. 

Our seriousness only persists to the extent that it permits hypocrisy, given that almost no one scolds VI Forms and universities for continuing to employ academic-based selection. 

As Hitchens acknowledges, it seems that whilst selection between ages 11 and 13 is “socially revolutionary”, the academic selection that occurs at VI Form and University level is not. After age 16 children’s educational fate is largely sealed, given that they have already sat their GCSE exams — the only qualifications now taken into account in university applications since AS levels were scrapped in 2015. 

Of course, selection across all age groups never ended at all. It has simply evolved into a more sinister species. Wealth is the “serpent” that corrupts the educational Eden, and the rich will always find a way to educate their own. 

Access to more rigorous schooling now relies on one’s postcode or wealth, which are innately connected, far more than it did when we still needed ration books.

Grammar schools did not forge a classless utopia because they were never intended to, nor would any schooling system be capable of doing so, as the comprehensive dogma continues to demonstrate. However, they clearly offered able students in difficult circumstances the opportunity to encounter rigorous academics. By the mid-1960s grammars and direct grant schools were beating private schools in the battle for admissions to most elite universities.

Hitchens admits a solution to this great betrayal is impossible

Hitchens also correctly suggests that grammars became an important issue under Harold Wilson because only a totalitarian regime could feasibly destroy private schools. 

Perhaps today’s resentment of the independent sector would not exist at the same level if the former options had been preserved. Indeed when Labour returned to government in 1974, they created more private schools than any government since the reign of Edward VI by forcing direct grant schools — a now extinct form of private school which was required to offer one-quarter of places to students whose fees were covered by the state — to become comprehensive or go private.

No doubt the attack on such schools allowed numerous mediocre private schools to plod on by pinching wealthier parents who might have sent their children elsewhere, now safely free from the competition of more competent but free options. 

Nor could the rigour of the O-levels survive the destruction of the Grammar schools that created them. The new GCSEs have resulted in momentous grade inflation that does not line up with genuine improvements in education standards. The marking criteria of the post-grammar qualifications are so wedded to their narrow curriculum, that children who offer information not covered by the syllabus can be marked down for their knowledge. Hitchens demonstrates the pig-headedness of the new exam boards by recalling a darkly comedic episode, in which celebrated economist Lord Skidelsky fails an A-level paper in his field.

Hitchens also laments foreign language teaching which has essentially disappeared in state schools, aside from inadequate curriculums that cannot hope to elevate even the most exceptional students to fluency. Here he grimly echoes Melanie Phillips’ All Must Have Prizes, perhaps the last serious book to confront similar issues almost three decades ago, which details how universities found students with A grade A-levels unable to translate basic passages.

Surely, some readers will criticise the author for failing to offer a solution to this great betrayal, and yet he does not because he admits that it is impossible.

Not since the dissolution of the monasteries has Britain seen such needless plunder of a charitable and productive thing as it did following Anthony Crosland’s Circular 10/65. As the generations that felt the ripples of the grammar revolution steadily expire, it becomes yet more unlikely that we will see their advantages reborn.

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