BBC accused of rosy take on thorny issue of grammars

19th October 2012 at 01:00
Documentary used 'romantic piano music', academics say

Oxbridge academics and educationalists have lodged a formal complaint against the BBC, accusing it of being biased in favour of grammar schools and using "manipulative rhetoric" to present selective education in a good light.

The group of 16 historians and educationalists, which includes Professor Richard Pring, who led the Nuffield Review of 14-19 education, claims the broadcaster has a "statutory obligation" to present a balanced view of selection as it is now back on the political agenda.

Only last week, London mayor Boris Johnson said he was keen on selection "at some stage".

In a complaint to the BBC, the group said a programme broadcast earlier this year about the history of grammar schools used "emotive and value-laden language ... accompanied by romantic piano music" to condition a positive response to the schools among viewers.

The letter says the two-part programme, The Grammar School: A Secret History, which featured famous grammar school alumni Sir David Attenborough and Edwina Currie, was "largely uncritical, factually careless and reliant upon unrepresentative personal testimony" presenting grammars as engines of social mobility.

They have also complained that it ignored strong research evidence underlining the drawbacks of grammar schools.

However, the complaint covers more than one programme, claiming that the BBC shows a general bias towards grammars across its channels, and needs to give a "fair crack of the whip" to comprehensive schools and what they have achieved.

Nick Shearman, the BBC's knowledge commissioning executive, said in response to the initial complaint that the programme was "an insightful and even-handed history of the grammar school". But the group was not satisfied with this and wrote again to the Editorial Complaints Unit, which, they claim, is 15 weeks overdue in responding.

Professor Pring, who also served as director of education at the University of Oxford from 1989 to 2003, said the programme had ignored research evidence showing that dividing children at 11 could not be justified: "It gave a cosy picture of that division at a time when we have a government who wants to return to these ways, so we need to have balance in their broadcasts.

"If there's going to be a reinvention of education, all possible arguments, views and recollections (must) get an airing and not just one kind. It's these views that are shaping public opinion."

Other key figures to sign the letter include Professor Anne Edwards, Oxford's current director of education, and Diane Reay, professor of education at the University of Cambridge.

Michael Pyke, a spokesman for the Campaign for State Education, said: "Our long-term aim is to get the BBC to give a more balanced view of education. There has never been a programme attempting to look at what has been achieved from the move away from selective systems to comprehensive ones."

He added: "If it was just an argument about history you could just shrug your shoulders. But it's actually a contribution in a current political debate. The BBC has a duty to make some kind of programme presenting a balanced point of view."

The stuff of dreams?

Quotes from the script of The Grammar School: A Secret History (Testimony Films):

"This is the story of a dream - the dream of giving the very best education to Britain's brightest children, however humble their background. The grammar schools were set up to deliver this dream and in the 20th century they made it come true for many children and their parents."

"The grammar schools created a generation of upwardly mobile high-flyers who helped transform Britain."

"But in the 1960s and 1970s a cultural revolution ... swept away the grammar schools and the ladder to success they provided."

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