Selecting a narrow education

As New Labour cranks up its anti-grammar school campaign, a teacher asks - why now?

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

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Could this be the end for the country’s remaining grammar schools?

At present there are 164 grammar schools, concentrated mainly in Kent and Yorkshire. Education secretary Charles Clarke has now given his backing to a new Labour Party campaign that aims to see the end of selection at age eleven once and for all.

This will be the first such campaign since New Labour came to power. Other recent attempts to scrap the grammars focused on a parental ballot – unfortunately for the government, the public just didn’t vote in line with official opinion. Only a handful of schools took part in a ballot and no grammar schools were actually closed.

The focus, and the debate Clarke wishes people to engage with this time, is the impact of grammar schools upon educational standards. His argument is that grammar schools depress standards by creaming off the most able pupils. But how on earth is it possible to blame schools with high standards for the existence of schools with low standards?

In order to unravel New Labour’s thinking on this issue, three questions need thinking through. Why scrap grammar schools? Why now? And why put the focus on educational standards?
On the face of it, the government’s desire to scrap grammar schools seems to fly in the face of New Labour’s most recent education policy. In the past, grammar schools were seen in opposition to the comprehensive sector. At this time, the educational philosophy was egalitarian and the same opportunities were to be offered to each child.

However, the current government has been keen to promote an increase in the number of specialist schools – secondary schools that receive an increased budget in return for focusing part of the curriculum on one subject area in particular, for example, sport or foreign languages. The days of the bog standard comprehensive have long since been numbered. In areas that still have grammar schools, an academic specialism becomes just one of many options to choose from – parents could just as readily choose to send their child to an arts, sports or technology college.

Given that the government seems very keen on promoting the idea of parental choice and of finding the right school to suit the individual child, why pick on grammar schools?

In the past, grammar schools were loathed by liberal commentators and left-leaning politicians, who were opposed to their practice of selection. Yet today’s government of today appears to have no problem with selection. We already have specialist schools that can select a proportion of pupils by aptitude, religious schools that select by church attendance and devotion, schools in wealthy catchment areas that select by postcode, fee-paying schools that select by income and schools that select on the ability of middle class parents to play the system and make a convincing appeal. The government is hardly exercising a policy of bussing children into schools from other areas.

It becomes increasingly obvious that there is only one type of choice that parents are not allowed to make, and only one selection criteria that schools cannot apply. For parents to choose, or schools to select, on the basis of academic standards is just not politically acceptable in today’s climate.

This brings us to the question of why scrap grammar schools now? The idea of parental choice and specialist schools works on the key principle that all the specialisms are different – but equal.

Perhaps what’s motivating the campaign to abolish academic selection is the fear that a rank order of specialisms will occur – as is bound to happen, and is rumoured in some areas to be well under way already. This would see parents placing the more traditionally academic schools at the top of the pile with technology colleges somewhere in the middle and sports colleges bringing up the rear. Many people have a lot at stake in making sure this does not happen.

From the government’s point of view, another reason for the pressing need to scrap grammars now comes with the latest reforms to the curriculum for 14-19 year olds. The vocational GCSEs (don’t call them that!) will only gain credibility if the much sought-after parity of esteem is achieved in the minds of parents, universities and employers. For this to happen, they need not only to lose the vocational tag, but also to be taken up by bright middle class kids.

There is a problem for the government if the ‘elite’ of schools opt out of vocational qualifications because they are not seen as being rigorous enough. This will raise questions in the minds of parents about the quality of these exams.

With the proposed curriculum changes, another problem occurs. The educational establishment could just about tolerate comparing grammar schools with comprehensives because both sets of schools followed the same curriculum and led to the same set of public exams. It was always possible for bright, hard-working pupils in the comprehensive sector to leave school with the same subject knowledge as their grammar school contemporaries, and perhaps even better exam results.

From now on this will be less likely, as the grammar school pupils are offered GCSEs in French History and Biology whist their comprehensive counterparts are offered Leisure and Tourism, Health and Social Care, and experience of photocopying for a small local firm. Grammar and comprehensive schools could now move further apart, with the grammar schools serving as an unwelcome reminder of the education bright kids will be missing out on.

So, why has the Labour party chosen to focus their campaign around educational standards? It is absurd to blame schools with high standards for other schools having low standards. Indeed, grammar schools could be seen as beacons of academic excellence for other schools to aspire to. There are many factors that account for low standards in schools, but, it seems, grammar schools are a much easier target than poor quality teaching, a badly designed curriculum and exam-focussed, league-table orientated lessons.

At a time when the national curriculum is being dismantled before our eyes, traditional academic subjects such as science and geography are becoming forums for discussing topical moral issues and GCSEs are becoming extended work experience placements, there has to be a case for defending a broad-based liberal academic education. We need this if only to remind ourselves what education actually is, and what it means to have attained a certain level of academic knowledge.

Like banning fox hunting, the prospect of scrapping grammar schools and ending selection is wheeled out to appease the left wing of the Labour Party when other things are not going their way. It is as though the party is saying, we may have increased university tuition fees but never mind, we’ll abolish grammar schools. There may be more selection in schools now than when we first came to office, but never mind, we’ll scrap the eleven-plus.

None of this is going to solve the problems facing Britain’s schools. All it will do is to deprive more children of even the chance of a decent, broad-based academic education. When everything else in education appears up for grabs, there has to be more of a case for keeping hold of the grammar schools than ever before – especially when the argument for abolishing them is based on nothing more than low expectations and political expediency.

Joanna Williams is a former English teacher, and has written for Early Years publications and the Times Educational Supplement.

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