C0KKN5 Pupils put up their hands to answer a questions at Maidstone Grammar school in Maidstone, Kent, U.K.

The roots of school rage

The closure of grammar schools entrenched privilege

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In March 2000, parents in Ripon, North Yorkshire voted by 1,493 to 747 to retain the city’s grammar school. The vote had been held under a clause in the Schools Standards and Framework Act (1998) which effectively banned new grammar schools from opening and created a mechanism by which existing grammar schools could be abolished. The Campaign for State Education had forced the ballot in the hope of making Ripon Grammar School the first of the remaining 166 grammar schools to fall. Instead, it became an historical footnote as the only such referendum to be held.

It is surprising that Peter Hitchens does not mention this event in his recent book, A Revolution Betrayed: How Egalitarians Wrecked the British Education System, since it supports his view that grammar schools were never unpopular. No stranger to a lost cause, Hitchens champions selection by ability and would like to see grammar schools return in great numbers. Despite occasional promises from Conservative leaders to revive the eleven-plus exam, this is even less likely than Hitchens’s dream of abolishing British Summer Time and flinging cannabis users in prison. He admits that the battle is “utterly lost”.

The book is an invigorating read nonetheless and made me consider my own position. I happened to be a pupil at Ripon Grammar between 1987 and 1994. For many years, I had mixed feelings about both the school and the whole system of selective education with its glaring, arbitrary inequities. It was not obvious that a grammar school education had made me the man I am and it was not necessarily to its credit if it had. To praise the grammar school system felt like defending my own privilege. To condemn it felt like kicking the ladder away. 

Many of the grammar schools’ most trenchant opponents had enjoyed the benefits of a private education

While remaining on the fence, I was struck by how many of the grammar schools’ most trenchant opponents had enjoyed the benefits of a private education and had sent their own children to either a private school or a carefully selected faith school in a leafy area. When Shirley Williams was dismantling the grammar school system as education secretary in the 1970s, her daughter was famously attending the highly selective Godolphin and Latymer School (which to avoid Williams’s policies became an independent school). It is always wise to pay more attention to people’s revealed preferences than their stated preferences.

Perhaps there is an element of confirmation bias, but I have also been struck down the years by how many successful people rose from very humble beginnings through the grammar schools. There are far too many to list, but they include Alan Bennett, Melvyn Bragg, Michael Caine, David Frost, Albert Finney, David Hockney, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Ben Kingsley, Andrew Neil, Dennis Potter, Michael Parkinson, Alan Rickman, Janet Street-Porter, Victoria Wood and all the Beatles except Ringo. And that is without mentioning anyone involved in politics, business, academia or sport.

Defenders of the grammar school system are sometimes accused of arguing from anecdote, as I am here, but is it mere coincidence that Britain had an unbroken run of grammar school-educated prime ministers between 1964 and 1997? Before 1964, they were almost all public schoolboys. 

Since 1997, they have been mostly public schoolboys again. Comprehensives have given us just one and a half prime ministers: Liz Truss and Theresa May, the latter attending a grammar school which became a comprehensive while she was there. In 2015, 50 years after the comprehensive school revolution began, the Guardian proudly appointed the first editor in its history to have been educated at a state school. It was Katherine Viner, one of my fellow Old Riponians.

What does any of this prove? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps all these people would have lifted themselves to the top by their own efforts. There is plenty of evidence from the social sciences for opponents of grammar schools to cite in their favour. For every claim in support of selection by ability there is at least one study from an educational think tank to rebut it. 

According to much of the academic literature, grammar schools do not take their fair share of children from poor backgrounds; they neither help nor hinder social mobility to any great degree; their pupils do not gain any social or emotional advantages over children who attend non-selective schools, and they have worse self-esteem; they get better grades but this is only because of genetic differences, family wealth or prior attainment; they are more likely to go to a good university, but only for the same reasons. Essentially, the whole thing is a con. Grammar schools simply cream off the kids who are destined for success and then take the credit when they get the grades they would have got anyway.

If all this were true and grammar schools were basically useless, why are so many people bothered about the issue? If they are no better and no worse than other schools, why does it matter how many there are? If they don’t offer anyone a leg up in life, why does it matter how many of their pupils come from poor backgrounds? In disparaging everything about grammar schools, egalitarian academics turn them into a non-issue. 

But let us assume, as other evidence suggests, that grammar schools provide a better standard of education than the average non-selective school and bestow advantages on those who attend them. The question then is whether such a system is inherently unfair and socially undesirable. 

It is an inescapable fact that grammar schools, as they currently exist, admit a disproportionately large number of children who attended private primary schools and admit disproportionately few children from low-income families. According to Comprehensive Future, one of several pressure groups lobbying for the abolition of the remaining grammars, only five per cent of grammar school children are eligible for free school meals as compared to 22 per cent in non-selective schools. By contrast, 11 per cent of their pupils went to a private primary school despite only 5 per cent of children in the general population having done so.

There is, however, no evidence of deliberate discrimination by the grammar schools. Pupils are admitted on merit. Children from poorer families are less likely to take the eleven-plus and are less likely to pass it when they do. 

There is no point being squeamish about the reasons for this

There is no point being squeamish about the reasons for this. Grammar schools have always taken more pupils from the middle class than from the very bottom of the income distribution because, as Hitchens explains, “the middle class is not a caste but a shifting body that you may join and leave. As it was in the 1950s, it existed as a result of education and ambition. It was hardly surprising that it valued education very highly and tried to secure it for its offspring.” 

But it was not just the middle class who did well from the grammar schools. Children from the skilled working class benefitted to a similar degree and for the same reasons. It is true that children from the unskilled working class, whose parents were less likely to have books at home and who did not encourage their children to take the eleven-plus, were admitted less often but it is difficult to see what the grammar schools could have done about this other than to abandon selection altogether and cease being grammar schools.

To the delight of progressive educationalists, this is exactly what nine out of ten grammar schools did after 1965 when the infamous Circular 10/65 told local authorities to convert their grammars to comprehensives. Whittled down from 1,300 at their peak to just 163 today, the demise of grammar schools has greatly exacerbated the socio-economic disparities in selection that egalitarians always associated with them. Now a scarce resource, affluent parents are prepared to pay a great deal for private tuition and expensive houses in the right catchment area for a chance to win their child a golden ticket.

For these reasons, it is wholly unfair to judge the grammar school system by how it works today rather than on how it performed before it was sabotaged. Even if academic research into grammar schools was not conducted by people who blatantly have an axe to grind, assessing the impact of grammar schools as they currently exist is like studying the impact of monasteries during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Grammar schools were set up to provide an academic education for the academically-minded. What egalitarians demanded of them could never be delivered. It was inevitable that some children who would have benefitted from a grammar school education would miss out, especially after the baby boom created more bright children than could be squeezed into the limited number of places available, but, as Hitchens says, the grammar schools “were not and could not be a sort of rescue mission, searching out wasted talent in every corner”. 

One of the main consequences of the idealistic assault on selection by ability was that grammars in many towns and cities, including Manchester, Leeds and Bradford, went private. Schools you were unlikely to attend if your parents were in the bottom ten per cent of the income distribution became inaccessible without a bursary unless your parents were in the top 20 per cent. This does not feel very egalitarian. 

In the name of equality, we could continue the frenzy of destruction and abolish the private schools. Unless you believe that selection by parental wealth is fairer than selection by ability, this is the logical conclusion to the reforms that began in the 1960s. Hitchens says this is a non-starter because private schools “could only be abolished by a totalitarian state”, but this doesn’t ring true. 

It would be difficult to enforce a ban on private tuition, but a ban on private schools would be easy enough. Hitchens is right when he says that leftists who call for their abolition are usually soothing their consciences, safe in the knowledge that it will never happen, but the reason it will never happen is not that Britain lacks a Gestapo. It is because the political elite rely on private schools for their own children and grandchildren. Politicians hate nothing more than the charge of hypocrisy but many of them would sooner be seen as a phoney than send their child to an average comprehensive.

In the rhetoric of those who oppose grammar schools, selection at age eleven consigns the majority of children to the “scrapheap”. This reflects lingering disdain for secondary modern schools which have all but disappeared (the former secondary modern in Ripon is now a well-regarded academy). Hitchens is too hard on comprehensive schools, most of which are pretty good these days and many of which are excellent, but it would be strange if supporters of comprehensive education thought of them as the scrapheap. 

If they did, why would they want every child to be condemned to it? And if some of them are substandard, surely there are better ways to improve them than forcing the most academically-minded children into them in the hope that, by some osmosis, they will lift their peers. 

The tragedy is that what the grammar schools did well (and still do) could have been done by any school. It did not cost money; grammar schools get less funding than comprehensives. Half the battle was ignoring post-war educational fads and retaining discipline. This, admittedly, was easier when the pupils had been handpicked, but the exceptional performance of the inner city Michaela Community School shows that it can still be done. Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh once put up a sign reading: “Private School Ethos – No Fees”. It could have been the slogan of the grammar schools.

I remain open to the possibility that the whole issue is a red herring. Insofar as educational standards have declined since the 1950s, there are plausible explanations that have nothing to do with grammar schools. And yet the fanaticism of those who wish to abolish grammar schools and the revealed preferences of politicians who claim to support comprehensive education draws me to Hitchens’s cause. Anthony Crosland, Labour’s education secretary in 1965, famously said: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England.” It almost goes without saying that he was a former public schoolboy. Why such fervour? Why such rage? 

The grammar schools took children from the lower-middle and skilled working classes and made the best of their talents. They did not, and could not, do it for everyone, but they made it possible for children whose parents could not afford a private education to compete with the privately-educated later in life. This, I suspect, is why so many former public schoolboys and girls hated them with such a passion and still cannot bear them even in their greatly diminished numbers today. 

The grammar schools were a threat to the private schools and to the life chances of those who bought their way into them. And so the people at the top of the ladder removed a few rungs below them. It may not have been a conscious decision by the privileged to entrench their social position. But whatever the intention, that was the result. 

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