The brutalist Hunstanton School, Norfolk

Broken eggs, no omelette

Baroness Williams believed until she died that comprehensive schools fostered equality. Her folly has only entrenched class privilege

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

I always liked Shirley Williams. She was a delightful person, and I know from a long-ago personal experience that she was a disinterestedly kind one as well. She was intelligent, rational, travelled and thoughtful. I am sorry she has now gone from us and that we will not hear that rather lovely voice ever again. I wish more of my political opponents were like her. So how do I square this with her large part in one of the worst and most destructive actions in modern history, the dissolution of grammar schools?

To answer this is to explain a much wider problem of modern Britain: how so many good people have done so many bad and damaging things, and have never understood how harmful they were because they have been able to hide the outcome from themselves in their personal lives.

This is what Shirley Williams did, and there are many other educational revolutionaries who did similar things: in the early 1970s, a few years before she became education secretary, Shirley Williams bought a house in Brook Green, Hammersmith “in an attractive Victorian terrace surrounding a small common”. By doing so, she found herself in the catchment area of what was then one of the best girls’ schools in the country.

This was Godolphin and Latymer, which she described as a “good, traditional girls’ school only a short distance from our new house”. It was one of nearly 200 “direct grant” grammar schools, an ingenious combination of private and state, in which bright children from local state schools could compete for a large number of free places alongside children whose parents paid full fees. The much-missed actor Alan Rickman, whose father was a manual worker, also attended such a school. Shirley Williams’s daughter Rebecca passed the 11-plus and so began an excellent secondary education — until in 1974 the Labour Party returned to power.

The evidence destroys two of Baroness Williams’s illusions: post-1965 schools are not fairer and not truly comprehensive

And in 1975, the education secretary Fred Mulley, mainly famous for falling asleep at an air display while sitting next to the Queen, began moves to abolish the direct grants. This was the necessary result of abolishing the grammar schools as a whole, the task Labour began in 1965, and Margaret Thatcher had continued between 1970 and 1974 — as their existence was based on the same principle of academic selection.

At the time Lord James of Rusholme, a Labour peer and former high master of the (direct grant) Manchester Grammar School, said in the Lords: “If I were a High Tory instead of a Fabian Socialist — a Tory of a type that now scarcely exists even in cartoons, one who really believes in privilege and keeping the lower orders down — one of the first things I should do would be to get rid of grammar schools and, above all, I should applaud what we are doing this afternoon, getting rid of the direct grant schools.” Nobody listened to him.

Some of the Direct Grants went comprehensive, soon losing much of their distinctive quality. Many more went private, including Godolphin and Latymer. Baroness Williams explained in her memoirs what happened after her daughter Rebecca’s school decided to go independent. This was politically impossible for a Labour education secretary (the post in which she had succeeded Mulley in September 1976). So Rebecca moved to a girls’ grammar school on the other side of London.

This interesting place was then in the process of transforming itself from a selective school into an ostensible comprehensive. But somehow many of its older qualities survived, at least long enough for the young Miss Williams to get her A levels. Rebecca Williams’s future was thus assured, and she duly won a place at Oxford. She was to be a pioneer. Since then a number of former grammar schools, many in London within reach of the left-wing elite, have kept up many of the characteristics of selective schooling, while remaining within the complex rules banning full academic selection.

The best way to identify such schools is to find out where senior Labour politicians and elite leftists of all parties (who claim to scorn private schools and selection by ability) send their children. Sometimes they do this through religious affiliation, sometimes through buying homes in tiny and expensive catchment areas. But here is the important thing. Nobody involved in using these side-entrances to elite education ever admits what they are doing, to themselves or to others.

The radical upper crust claim in theory that they have made the country better and more equal. But they also know perfectly well in practice that their policies have changed education for the worse (this is indisputable, as any study of exam standards over the last 55 years will show). Fascinatingly, the results of comprehensives are not significantly higher than those of the few remaining secondary moderns in selective areas. In Labour’s 1959 manifesto, they promised that “grammar-school education will be open to all who can benefit by it”. This ludicrous “Grammars For All” claim — “Exclusively for Everyone” — was repeatedly made by reformers. Actually, what they created instead were Secondary Moderns For All, but without the good parts. There are many other factors here, but it is worth remembering that the secondary moderns, for all their limits, had certain virtues now lost.

They taught vocational and practical courses which their pupils found useful when they went into work, rather than watered-down academic exams with little practical application. They were often quite small, and so did not have the terrifying discipline problems of the vast factory-sized comprehensives needed to sustain viable sixth forms.

as so often with utopian projects, there are plenty of broken eggs, but still no omelette. But the egalitarian chefs are undismayed. Just a few more eggs, a few more years, and a few more billions. And the alleged “comprehensive” schools which were supposed to arise from the rubble of the grammars are proof of that. The ones which are defensible are not comprehensives. And the ones which may possibly be comprehensive (though this claim must be doubted) are not defensible.

Most people in politics do not begin to understand this issue. Hardly anyone even knows whose idea it was, or that it was a political plan, not an educational one. In fact it was thought up in the late 1920s by a radical official called Graham Savage, who wanted Britain to adopt the USA’s high school system because it would be more “democratic”. He admitted that it would lead to lower standards, but could never have imagined quite how much lower they would be.

It is a cause rather than a policy, and one wrapped in the shining dogma of equality, so dazzling that it destroys thought. Baroness Williams, beyond doubt, believed till she died that comprehensive schools would somehow help the poor. She never revised this view, and continued to support them without regret into her old age.

Crude politics helped this to happen. The great post-war baby bulge, which had swept through primary schools in the early 1950s, overwhelmed grammars and secondary moderns alike after 1956. This was especially serious for the selective grammars, which were so oversubscribed that they were forced to turn away boys and girls who would have passed into them easily a few years before. As a result, grammars became understandably unpopular with the parents of the unjustly rejected. But it was the baby boom, and the failure to deal with it, that caused this crisis, not selective schooling itself.

In 1954 when the system was still functioning roughly as it was meant to, almost 65 per cent of grammar school pupils came from working class homes. Almost 44 per cent of grammar school sixth formers had fathers in working class occupations. If the Tory governments of the 1950s and early 1960s had encouraged local authorities to build new grammar and technical schools to cope with this demographic surge, middle class support for comprehensive reform would have been far weaker. But the grammars were caught between Tory indifference and growing Labour egalitarianism, and so they died.

Since the abolition of selection by ability in most of the country, selection itself has not stopped. It is in fact far more rigid and inescapable. On National Offer Day each March, children’s futures are decided forever not by their ability, as was once the case, but on the basis of their parents’ wealth. In the days of selection by ability there were quite a lot of second chances for late developers. Now there are almost none, because parental wealth tends to stay the same.

The Sutton Trust found in a March 2017 survey that children from poor homes were far less likely than those from better-off backgrounds to win places at the 500 top-ranked “comprehensives”. In the same month, the Teach First organisation reported that 43 per cent of pupils at England’s outstanding secondary schools were from the wealthiest 20 per cent of families. Poorer pupils were half as likely as the richest to be heading to an “outstanding” secondary school.

So the evidence destroys two of Baroness Williams’s beloved illusions. The post-1965 schools are not fairer, and are not truly comprehensive. They solidify class privilege rather than weakening it. And they hurt the poorest, who had better access to the old grammar schools than they do to the best comprehensives. Imagine being a bright child from a poor home, trapped in a bad school by a rigid wealth test in the name of equality. How cruel this is to those who suffer it. How disastrous it is for the country which each year loses so much of its best talent to pointless failure. How terrible the dogma must be which allows kind and decent people, such as Shirley Williams was, to support such bitter folly.

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