Natural case for selection

7th June 1996 at 01:00
If grammar schools were called centres of excellence every town would want one.

Grammar schools are back in the headlines, and rightly so. Designed for excellence, they stand for what an increasing number of people want: top results achieved by traditional methods. The Prime Minister wants a grammar school in every town, so we may be sure that Gillian Shephard, his loyal Secretary of State for Education, does too. Mr Major is probably driven by nostalgia, but his opponents on this are just as backward-looking. Grammar schools are an asset this country needs for its future.

In every walk of life except education, everyone accepts that, if you put the best people together and resource them properly, you get the best results. Premier League Football clubs know this. So do industrial management teams. Even university education departments handpick their intake (while preaching open entrance for everyone else). The same principle applies to grammar schools.

It goes without saying that, if you select some, you exclude others, but that is scarcely the scandal it is made out to be. The GCSE has replaced the old GCECSE twin-track and the old grammarsecondary modern divide has gone with it. Gone, too, is the sudden death of the 11-plus: schools consult and recommend instead. To bang on about the evils of selection as if nothing has changed is simply so much dust-raising. Selection by ability is a practical and defensible option these days.

Selection by ability ensures that parental income (or lack of it) does not stand between children and a quality education. Money talks, we know, but one of the great glories of the grammar schools has been to open up routes to the top for children from impoverished backgrounds without compromising standards. Grammars have much to be proud of in this regard.

Are the grammar schools in competition with the comprehensives? That depends. If they take too large a percentage of bright children from their surrounding area, then yes. If they are limited to a small percentage, then no. Many people believe that grammar schools are automatically the enemy of the comprehensives. They are not, and inflammatory phrases such as "creaming off" and "denuding other schools of talent" are misleading. If grammar schools were called "centres of excellence", every town and city would want one even more than an Olympic stadium.

What of the view from the Left? It's fun nailing Labour grandees for saying one thing and doing another, but the modern state cannot afford a ceiling on ability - and a defining characteristic of socialism is its conscious commitment to the state. Nationalisation may not be heard much of in Islington nowadays, but the state as a force for good remains an article of faith: when Labour speaks of a national health service, transport network or education service, it means exactly what it says.

That commitment of the state places an extra duty on education, namely, to bring on the best to serve the rest. So, if only the best will do, Labour should be more interested in grammar schools than any other party, not less.

The largest single handicap on education today is not selection but funding, and a lot of so-called educational problems are really financial problems in disguise. There is no reason why properly funded comprehensives and properly funded grammars should not co-exist.

Moreover, selection is here to stay anyway, so everything turns on its context. As you would expect where the best is the norm, grammar schools educate their pupils not just to pass examinations but to surpass them. In their case, therefore, selection is entirely justifiable.

In short, grammar schools have much to offer, and not at the expense of the majority, either. At the moment, there are fewer than 160 of them, and their geographical distribution is uneven. That there should be a national network is obvious: it is quite wrong that, in many parts of the country, the only alternative to a comprehensive is a fee-paying school. It is also both wrong and a misjudgment of the national need to insist that in the state sector there should be no alternative to comprehensives.

Dr Colin Butler is senior English master at Borden grammar school, Kent

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