Selective education can serve all pupils

5th October 2012 at 01:00
As the Conservative Party conference approaches, prominent Tory backbencher Graham Brady takes on his own government

"I have always thought that the goal of state education should be to achieve such high standards that parents would not wish to send their children to private schools."

You might think it bad form for me to quote my own speeches, but this brief excerpt from my maiden speech in the 1997 debate on the abolition of the assisted places scheme at least shows that I have been consistent. My support for selective education isn't born of nostalgia and it certainly isn't about social elitism: quite the opposite. The evidence shows that as selection has been withdrawn, bright people from ordinary working families have been less likely to scale the heights in politics, the professions or the civil service. The 7 per cent educated at independent schools are even over-represented among Olympic medal winners and the acting profession. Benedict Cumberbatch complains that his background is now held against him; "castigated as a moaning, rich, public school bastard", he contemplates moving to the US. Rather than getting mad at those whose route to success has been eased by privilege, I think we should get even.

There is an astonishing inverse correlation between the performance of state schools in a local authority area and the percentage attending independent schools. I grew up in and now represent selective Trafford, which is consistently among the highest performing areas in the country; just 4.9 per cent of Trafford children go to independent schools. In less affluent, comprehensive Stockport just down the road, the numbers going private are more than twice as high. As you can imagine, I have argued the toss over this issue more than a few times and at this point my critics typically say, "Look, we all know that grammar schools are great for those who are lucky enough to go to them; the trouble with you is that you just don't care about the kids who don't get in, the ones who are consigned to failure at 11."

This may have been a fair argument 40 years ago, when grammar schools were often the only sturdy leg of the tripartite system envisaged by Butler in his 1944 Education Act. But in areas like mine, instead of getting rid of the good bit of the system - the grammar schools - huge efforts were made to raise the standard of the high schools. Last year, seven of the 10 highest performing areas at GCSE were selective (the others were the Isles of Scilly, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham, which are hardly representative of comprehensive England). This isn't a measure of the success of grammar schools alone, but of the whole selective system working together.

The select few

Having established that the educational outcomes tend to be higher in selective areas than in comprehensive ones, opponents of selection will say that these results are bought at the unacceptable price of social division and sapping the self-confidence of those who go "unselected". At least this is an honest - if ideological - argument. I reject it for two reasons. The first is that children who go to a good high school simply do not feel that they have failed. The diversity of specialism, at least for those of us in urban areas, makes it far more likely that each child will go to a school that is a good fit for them. The outstanding high schools in my constituency specialise in technology, maths and computing, visual arts and sport. These schools achieve remarkable added value and, in an area where 35 per cent go to grammar schools, they frequently outperform all-ability comprehensives in leafier Cheshire next door.

The second reason why selection should not be damned for social division is the one that Andrew Adonis gave in his 1997 book A Class Act. He wrote: "The comprehensive revolution tragically destroyed much of the excellent without improving the rest. Comprehensive schools have largely replaced selection by ability with selection by class and house price. Middle-class children now go to middle-class comprehensives. Far from bringing the classes together, England's schools, private and state, are now a force for rigorous segregation."

This conclusion was backed up more recently by Sutton Trust research that found the top-performing comprehensives to be more socially exclusive than state grammars, confirming what we all know about the effect a good state school has on house prices in the catchment area. It is fashionable for politicians to profess support for social mobility but the reality of modern Britain is very different: we live in a country in which the two top universities take a third of their entrants from just 100 schools, 84 of which are independent.

I am not an advocate of central planning; I don't want to tell people what kind of schools they should have and I certainly wouldn't inflict a wholesale reorganisation of state education on the nation. I do, though, actually believe in giving more autonomy to successful schools. I really mean it when I say that parents and communities should be free to choose the kind of school provision they want. I find it profoundly odd, therefore, that faced with opinion polls showing three voters out of four wanting to see more grammar schools, all the main political parties are denying them that opportunity. It is time we let the many have the same choices and opportunities that are currently available to the fee-paying few.

Graham Brady is MP for Trafford and chair of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers.

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