Monday, 8 August 2016

Grammar schools aren't the solution but they're better than doing nothing

Were it not for our national debate (I'm being kind here) about health, I would describe the current grammar schools argument as the most inane and purposeless debate in modern politics. I get that schools are important but the degree to which all this is presented as a binary choice - you either have grammars or you have comps - is perhaps the most depressing aspect of the debate.

I could take any number of texts as the basis for discussing the problem with this grammar school debate - we're all holding forth, adopting prejudging and poorly informed positions and lobbing insults at each other. But first a couple of general points.

Opposing grammar schools is anti-choice. I know everyone wants to make out that it isn't and that somehow there is no choice involved in parents choosing whether or not to get their children to sit an entrance exam for a school (or group of schools). We do have a problem with parental choice - "you have a right to express a preference" is the official line we've heard a hundred times as schools catchments exclude children. This is a failing in the system that's entirely down to the (anti-market) way in which we organise education. The free schools idea was intended to remedy this problem and in doing so raise standards but the entrenched LEA establishment resisted and still resists liberalising our school system.

The current comprehensive system is just as elitist - perhaps more so - than a grammar school system. Take the best comprehensive schools in the country and check out their catchments. The best schools are surrounded by the wealthy parents of children who, in the 1960s, would have gone to grammar school. Entire ghettos of privilege determined by house price. Not only does this screw up the supposed 'fairness' of the comprehensive school system but it does untold damage to communities, especially in inner cities, as the most successful and highest achieving relocate to live near the good schools.

Right now, for many places, doing nothing isn't an option worth considering. It's pretty easy to sit in rural Sussex and talk about the wonders of comprehensive education. If you live on a peripheral estate in Bradford, in East Leeds or in Hull the story's a bit different - that comprehensive system means your child is likely to go to a school that's not good enough. And plenty of parents - poor parents who are struggling to do the best for their children - have no choice at all unless they're lucky enough (and their child bright enough to pass) to live in a place where the grammar school offers a way out.

None of this makes grammar schools either the right -or more to the point, all of the - answer. We can't present grammar schools as a panacea for our lack of social mobility or poor standards of educational outcome because the evidence tells us they don't provide that answer. The problem is that neither of the two entrenched camps is offering a route to an education system that does offer a real chance to working-class children from Bradford's Ravenscliffe estate or Branksholme in Hull.

So when Chris Dillow suggests that the grammar school debate is out of the same box as the Brexit debate, he's right (although he reasoning isn't). It's the lack of choice and opportunity plus the manner in which the "elite" manage to grab all the good stuff - and then lecture folk about anti-social behaviour or how they're all too fat. Comprehensive schools were introduced for the right reason but, over time, it has become clear that they simply haven't delivered - except for the same sort of folk who, in times past, were the ones who got their children into the grammar schools.

This grammar school debate is a distraction from the main challenge in education. Here in Bradford we've had decades of state-directed solution-mongering with pretty much no change to educational performance. We were at the bottom of the pile when we reorganised in 1998, still down there in 2002 when we were forced to outsource, hadn't improved much ten years later when it all came back "in-house", and still show little or no signs of improvement. Having a couple of grammar schools might help a little but probably won't change much - it's the system that's rotten not how we distribute children within the system.

Yet the same educational establishment that's eager to stop any new grammar schools is just as keen to prevent us having a more open market in education - even a relatively cautious attempt, free schools, resulted in an unholy alliance of unions, so-called educationalists and left-wing politicians dedicated to killing off a genuine attempt to try and break the stranglehold of LEA establishments and deliver better schools for the children of working class Britain. Children in Bradford have poorer education and their parents less choice because the Council's leadership decided to object to, delay, oppose and generally stall any attempt to deliver new schools.

So, yes, grammar schools aren't a great way to solve the problem with standards and social mobility in UK schools. But those proposing them are at least trying to address these problems rather than simply offering - as the educationalists opposed to grammars are doing - more of the same old rubbish. This might not matter in Hertfordshire or East Sussex - or even in Ilkley or Bingley. But in a lot of places doing nothing simply condemns another generation of children to languishing in a failed system delivering lousy outcomes and next to nothing in terms of opportunity.



asquith said...

I passed the 11+ for a school at the other end of the city (there's one grammar school serving the entire city) but didn't go, on the grounds that only one other person I knew was going and I didn't want the upheaval. (I've only seen this person twice in the intervening 20 years).

This, I think, is fairly typical of an intelligent working-class child's mentality. We won't go through all the hoohah of moving house or going to a school miles away, we won't make the sacrifices (and they are sacrifices at that age) the way the middle class would have to under such parental pressure.

So it's not necessarily a question of ability but the entire culture. We all know that most kids at the new grammar schools would be from affluent families, the few working-class kids would mainly be from immigrant families, and you can imagine the average UKIP voter's reaction if Indians and Iranians get places ahead of his own children.

As I say it has little to do with intelligence, or else I'd have done it and taken those three buses every day myself. And in this case the plural of anecdote is indeed data, it happens where there are widespread grammar schools and all the evidence bears this out.

Of course the problem with comprehensive schools is that in practice they are selective, unless you're religious or pretend to be in certain areas you're stuck in one of the worst schools. This is a long-standing problem which has a lot to do with postwar town planning and is an inherited problem. But, while the status quo is bad, there's no reason to think a mass grammar school building problem or the hare-brained scheme to make all schools into academies would be better.

James Higham said...

As you say, in practical terms, especially as they're a known-known already, they're the least worst. They must be reintroduced, talent must be promoted, irrespective of money.