Grammars: working-class pupils' last hope

10th July 2009 at 01:00
Comprehensives have led to apartheid in education, where a child's chances are determined by a postcode lottery

The past, wrote Gerard Kelly, editor of The TES, in an attack on grammar schools last week, is a very pleasant country. I disagree. The past is not something anyone should try to recreate. Our only concern should be how we best educate pupils today and tomorrow. And that must mean - as part of the mix - allowing an element of selection to be lawful.

In order to understand the present, let alone the future, we need to understand what happened in the past - just why it was that grammar schools were effectively abolished. And to do that, we need to look at what led to the issue on July 12, 1965 of Circular 1065, the document that the Department of Education and Science issued to local education authorities requesting them to begin converting their secondary schools to the comprehensive system.

Education 44 years ago was far from perfect; there was a long tail of underperforming schools. But, for all that there were problems with two legs of the old tripartite system (the technical and secondary modern schools), the third leg (grammar schools) did indeed do a fine job of lifting children out of poverty and giving them opportunity.

Yet today, our system has one of the worst rankings in the developed world, and every opinion poll shows that the majority of parents would pay to escape the state system if they could afford to do so. If that is progress, I dread to think what standing still would look like.

There was, however, nothing inevitable about this. There is no comparable problem in the rest of Europe, where academic and vocational selection have remained widely practised and state schools have, in the main, succeeded in the task of offering decent opportunities to children. The responsibility for our failure lies with the ideology that gripped, first, the education establishment and then the politicians in the 1960s.

Many of the most influential educational theorists in the 1950s and 1960s genuinely believed, as Robin Pedley, one of the leading advocates, put it at the time, that mixed-ability teaching and comprehensive schooling "gives all children a fresh start in the secondary school ... The expectations which teachers have of the majority of their pupils are better - and their pupils, sensing and responding to this higher regard, in turn achieve more."

It was, of course, Grade A nonsense. Even on its own terms the destruction of the grammar schools has failed, making class divisions worse rather than better. AH Halsey, an adviser to Anthony Crosland, the education secretary who issued Circular 1065, and one of the leading egalitarian theorists of the 1960s, has summarised the position with stark honesty: "The essential fact of twentieth century educational history is that egalitarian policies have failed."

This conclusion has nothing to do with looking back to a supposed "golden age" of education. There has never been such a period. But there should be no doubt that grammar schools did the job they were supposed to do. For the first two-thirds of the 20th century, education was the great engine of social mobility. As state education improved, so did the chance of escaping from an upbringing of poverty. But the final third of the 20th century saw a catastrophic decline in standards, causing a similar reduction in social mobility.

Today, once more, where one is born on the social scale is by far the greatest determinant of where one will end up. Far from drawing the nation together, the educational revolution of the 1960s - essentially the introduction of comprehensive schools coupled with the forced implementation of "progressive" teaching methods - led inexorably to an ever-growing educational apartheid.

Instead of devising policies that would tackle the failures of secondary modern and technical schools, the political elites tore down the one glowingly successful class of school which had, for many of them, been their own ladder of opportunity.

There were, of course, those who argued that comprehensive schools and progressive teaching methods were a good thing on their own educational merits, that the way to overcome the failure of the secondary modern schools was to destroy the grammar schools, force high achievers into mixed-ability classes and schools and watch the less academic pupils improve. But we are still waiting for that to happen.

Exam statistics for Northern Ireland - where selection continued - show a very different pattern from those for England and Wales. Starting from a much lower base, the proportion of leavers with A-level and good O-level results rose steeply during the 1950s and 1960s and continued to rise rapidly until well into the 1970s. There was no plateau after 1970, as found in England and Wales, and the figures for Northern Ireland are now anything from 30 per cent to 50 per cent higher than those for England and Wales.

What a terrible irony: Butler's 1944 Education Act, which enshrined the idea of a grammar school place for the intellectually able rather than the socially well connected, was the culmination of arguments of socialists such as Sidney Webb and RH Tawney.

Comprehensive schools have simply replaced selection by ability with selection by class and house price. Middle-class children now go to middle-class comprehensives, whose catchment areas comprise middle-class neighbourhoods. And working-class children are left to fester in the inner-city comprehensive their parents cannot afford to move away from. So it is particularly bizarre of the TES editor to conclude that "the few remaining grammars are even more socially restrictive than their dreadful predecessors" - that is precisely because his ideological soulmates destroyed all but 164 of them.

Ten Days that Changed the Nation: The Making of Modern Britain by Stephen Pollard is published by Simon Schuster, Pounds 10.99

Stephen Pollard, Editor, 'The Jewish Chronicle'.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today