As Teresa May tossed the juicy bone of grammar schools to the right wing of her party, I was reminded of a request to buy dog food for my daughter.
Well, more accurately, for my daughter’s dog, as we left the ranks of the urban poor when we became one of those eponymous hardworking families. She was very specific about which kind it had to be, so I set off down the relevant isle in ‘Pets ‘r Us’, a phrase I certainly wouldn’t have got away with in my 1960s grammar school, in search of the correct product.
And there, thanks to freedom of choice, the problem started.
Not a choice of four or five products, but seemingly four or five hundred, all beautifully packaged, redolent with pictures of gambolling, happy dogs, and presumably differing from each other in ways that were too subtle for my human eye. With the help of an assistant, I eventually located the right one, wondering as I did so how our 1960s dog had managed to survive on a diet of leftovers. My primary school friends, who got their academic leftovers at the secondary modern schools in the town, were not always so lucky.
To think that we are about to recreate the binary system is apparently to misread the situation completely. Yes, there will be lots of grammar schools, but there will be lots of other kinds of school as well, possibly one for every day of the week. Independent schools and grammar schools will be sharing their expertise, providing a welcome respite for those teaching Year 9 set 6 on a Friday afternoon. Parents will have unlimited choice and are expected in droves to choose a grammar school. Let’s hope the feeling is mutual, and it chooses them as well.
Parliament, of course, is located in the middle of London, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the ideas emanating from it are located in the same place. Fifty-seven varieties may have some traction in Islington, but it is less clear how the idea can be applied to rural areas like Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Several years ago, I was able to admire the latter’s binary system at close quarters as I inspected the runt of a three-school litter in a small town.
The grammar school gobbled up the academic cream, leaving two secondary moderns to fight for the leftovers. The one I inspected was at the rougher end of town, and had strangely emerged as the school of choice for its local population. The staff at Hobson’s Academy (no, not it’s real name!) deserved a medal for the degree of damage limitation they achieved. I’ve not been back, but if anyone has opened a Free School in the area specialising in Latin and Greek my guess is that it’s not over-subscribed.
In the early 1980s Sir Keith Joseph became Education Secretary. He was not always an enlightened man. Once, on an interviewing panel, he allegedly told a black candidate to go back where he came from and grow bananas, obtaining the response that ‘that would be rather difficult in Haringey’. However, his analysis of the country’s education problems was more perceptive and more accurate. We failed to educate the bottom 40 per cent of the ability range. The tripartite system envisaged by Butler’s 1944 Education Act had never materialised because of our antipathy to technical schools, and the binary system that had emerged had been singularly unsuccessful in reaching the parts that grammar schools could not reach.
When compared to the vocational education offered by our European neighbours, the criticism still holds good today. We’ve never managed to escape the feeling that vocational qualifications are a booby prize, and we’ve always managed to escape investing in them properly.
At the other end of the scale, our academic achievements compare reasonably well with those of Europe, except, of course that students emerging from the French and German systems usually speak two foreign languages as well. That may matter less in a post-Brexit world, where the default position of shouting loudly in English is likely to be more acceptable.
Teresa May presented her ideas under the banner of inclusion: better education for all. Experts are not to be trusted, so the current fashion seems to be to commission research and then do the opposite of what it tells you. As Keith Joseph noted, the major problem with the British Bulldog is its extraordinarily long tail. So the less obvious solution is to devote all our attention to feeding its front end, in the hope that some of the juice will drip down to those who’ve exercised their choice for a secondary modern.
Research also appears to show that overall academic standards are weaker in areas with grammar schools, so the answer there is to create more of them. Although, of course, standards will rise automatically when every school is a grammar school, just as they did when every school was required to be above average.
I’m sure Teresa May would not welcome a comparison to Mao’s cultural revolution, and his wish to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’. But the Tories’ plans for education have a similarly experimental feel, and could produce a similar crop of weeds.
Let’s open lots of different sorts of schools, let’s have lots of grammar schools, and, not on the script, let’s have lots of unintended consequences. Schools who lose their critical mass of able students to surrounding poachers, schools who use their sharp elbows to acquire the ‘best students’, schools left with spare places so they can mop up the waifs and strays that no-one else wants. Will this, in fact, be ‘a better deal for all’?
So why did she do it? Evidence-free, counter-intuitive, potentially destructive of a system producing, arguably, better results than ever before. Well, the clue is in the term: ‘grammar schools’. It’s up there with motherhood, apple pie, warm beer and cricket on the village green. And given its ability to induce prolonged salivation amongst ‘traditional’ Conservatives, the shires will be drooling and dribbling for some time to come.
Teresa May can rightly say: ‘après moi, le déluge’. Let’s just hope the flood defences work. If not, the resulting torrent could drown the dog’s dinner.
Harmer Parr is a former HMI.