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Artillery Row

The Conservative betrayal of selective schooling

Grammar schools are great — but there are not enough of them

The politics of becoming a poorer country is an ugly business. With politicians unwilling or unable to embark on the sort of reforms that might deliver genuine prosperity, things devolve into a bitter struggle over what there is to go round — and a hunt for easy targets.

Labour’s plan to strip private schools of the tax privileges that go with charitable status is a case in point. It won’t raise much money, but it feels good. Moreover, given the absurd levels to which modern fees have risen, those parents who complain are not likely to garner much public sympathy.

Yet as so often, that quick, spiteful political rush can have bad long-term consequences, and not just for people who can stump up tens of thousands a year in fees.

Most obviously, the big question opponents of private schools have never satisfactorily answered is how the rest of us would benefit from suddenly having to fund an extra 620,000 places at state schools; with per-pupil funding in 2024/5 at £7,690, that’d be £4.67 billion of additional public funding.

Yet just as problematic are the second-order effects. In our current system, for example, house prices play an unofficial but important role in school admissions. Whilst exceptions such as Michaela exist, generally nicer areas have better schools, and a good school pushes up house prices in its catchment area.

Is it really preferable to have wealthy parents taking the money they would have spent on fees — i.e. given to an institution (around half of which are charities) to actually spend on education — and give it to a bank instead?

But one potential consequence in particular caught my eye: a surge in parents seeking out tuition for the 11 Plus, the examination that grants a child permission to enter one of this country’s surviving grammar schools. 

If fee-paying parents do decamp en masse to the selective sector, that would be very bad news. It would undermine the role that grammars play in driving social mobility — and superficially strengthen the modern, progressive case for shutting them down in their turn.

How do I know this? Because this process has already been playing out for some time. Opponents of grammar schools have little option but to concede that they were once great engines of social mobility. But, they argue, it is not so today. Here’s John Bercow, writing in 2020:

I used to subscribe to the myth that grammar schools were the great facilitator of opportunity for a bright working-class child. While that may have been true when Fred Perry – a great tennis hero of mine – went to grammar school in the 1920s, that is not the norm today.

Yet totally unaddressed is the question of why grammar schools stopped driving social mobility

There are all sorts of problems with his argument, not least that he praises local authorities with smaller attainment gaps even if they have much, much worse results. Little wonder that in his whole time as MP for Buckingham only two constituents (childless Labour voters) complained to him about the county’s selective system.

Yet totally unaddressed is the question of why grammar schools stopped driving social mobility. He cannot address it because the answer is the direct opposite of the progressive conclusion: because there aren’t enough of them.

For starters, today only a few parts of the country — generally more prosperous ones — have retained the 11 Plus system in toto. This is obviously going to skew the demographics of who attends them.

Yet more significant is the ferocious pressure this puts on places. This will be especially acute where you have a single, isolated surviving grammar school, but it also bites in places like Buckinghamshire. 

I know this from first-hand experience. I grew up in west Hertfordshire, where huge numbers of pupils trained for and sat the 11 Plus in the hope of getting into a selective school across the county border. The school my brothers and I attended (then Chesham High, now Chesham Grammar) had a large proportion of pupils who travelled in from Hertfordshire or north London.

That was great for us (I certainly think it made a huge difference for me). But the obvious consequence of that is that bright but disadvantaged or less privileged children in Chesham itself had to fight harder for fewer places. Many will have missed out on the education they would have had if there had been local grammars in Hertfordshire or Pinner.

If Labour ever really started choking private education, that problem would get even worse. I might never have got my place at Chesham if I’d been competing with all the children who currently go to Berkhamsted School.

This is why the Conservatives’ cowardice on selective schools over the past 14 years has been so frustrating. Yes, there were big problems with the best-and-the-rest attitude of the post-war Tripartite system. But they were due to the neglect of secondary moderns and the abandonment of technical schools; grammars were the bit that worked.

In the wake of the academies and free-schools revolution, there would be little risk of returning to such a model. Academic selection could simply be part of a broader spectrum of school specialisation.

Allowing more grammars to open — or even just allowing existing grammars to expand — would increase the number of places available, ease competitive pressure, and increase the odds of bright kids from poorer backgrounds getting a shot at a transformative education. Ministers could even have initially restricted new schools to areas designated for levelling up, to draw the political sting.

Instead, we’ve had 14 years of inaction, and now it looks as if our remaining grammars may end up serving (as do the best comprehensives, such as the “socialist Eton”, Holland Park) as a refuge for the wealthy — and a ripe target for a future bout of progressive levelling-down.

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