Why I ditched grammars and betrayed the Right

26th September 1997 at 01:00
As Gillian Shephard's adviser, I naturally went with her to the Department for Education when she became Secretary of State. It was then, it seems, that I became a traitor - at least in the eyes of the Right and its house magazine, the Daily Telegraph. They were saddened and surprised by my behaviour.

To be fair, they had some grounds for bewilderment. In the early 1980s I had been a member of the education study group at the Centre for Policy Studies, working alongside many distinguished right-wingers. I wrote passionately about the abysmally low standards in state education, as I had seen them as a teacher in the late 1970s. I lamented the loss of the grammar schools and suggested their restoration as the only hope for a return to sanity in the system.

Yet now I was reappearing, 15 years later, as the advocate of all things wet in education - from design technology to the GCSE.

My old friends assumed that I had gone native, lured by the blandishments of the educational establishment. In fact I had simply changed my views - for a variety of good reasons.

My admiration for grammar schools could never cease. For their time, and for the fortunate ones like me whom they educated, they were superb. But how could one condone a system that let two-thirds of its children rot? Of course there were some good secondary modern schools. There was the rare and precious technical high school. But we still wasted, in Newsom's memorable words, "half our future".

Some people thought that didn't matter. They argued that we would always need hewers of wood and drawers of water. One could smile vaguely at them behind the counter at Woolworth's, as one flicked back one's Cambridge scarf. They were the "underclass" who might, if they were lucky, be "trained". There are right-wing politicians and pundits who still talk and write like that, speaking of human beings as if they were chimpanzees. These views I could not share.

Yet what was the alternative to the grammar school? The great sweep of the 1960s and 1970s into almost universal comprehensivisation had coincided with a period of educational experiment and ferment which put objective standards seriously at risk. The intellectual clarity of the grammar school was replaced in many schools by a dreary unfocused mediocrity which served no one well.

When I went to the Department for Education in 1994 I assumed that state schools were, by and large, still like that. It is a curious thing about education that we all imagine that schools are just like they were when we last saw them. I was therefore amazed to see how much state schools had improved since I left teaching in 1979.

It was clear that much of this improvement had been achieved through government reforms. Amid the cant, the posturing, and the sometimes appalling discourtesy to teachers, a revolution had occurred which few could regret.

Order had been imposed on chaos. Excellent standards had been made the main objective of education. And - what I thought most important - the objective for all children.

Realising the absurdity of a school curriculum in which the only compulsory subjects were RE and PE (worthy as both may be) the Government had introduced the national curriculum. It was a natural corollary of the comprehensive ideal, giving access to a wide range of essential subjects to all pupils, not just to the privileged few who went to the grammar school. And that curriculum is every child's legal right - no lazy or doctrinaire teacher can rob him of it.

Then there is the GCSE. As results improve, the Right assume that standards must be falling. Has it never occurred to them that this is a much better exam than O-level, assessing a variety of skills rather than being mainly a memory test? Or might not the quality of teaching have improved? I speak with some knowledge, having been an examiner for 25 years.

For all the demands that the new measures, including Office for Standards in Education inspections and the league tables, have imposed on teachers, they have also removed burdens. They have imposed an external order, a structure within which each school can develop its own ethos - that elusive quality which was often lost in the 1960s and 1970s. I am very struck By the quietness in most schools today, the subdued hum of purposeful activity. A school like The Ridings (as it was) stood out - yet loutish behaviour like that was quite common in schools 20 years ago.

Of course I generalise, but I think that this immense improvement should be recognised and applauded. It never ceased to amaze me that in John Major's time members of the Government which had enacted these reforms, and should therefore have been most proud of them, were among their harshest critics.

I also found John Major's own attitude strange. He took over an education system transformed by Conservative government to epitomise so much of what he claimed to stand for: opportunity for all. Yet with his desire to restore selection, he wished to revert to an elitism that did not particularly favour him - or the vast majority of children.

Now we have a new and surprising Government. They do not intend to reverse all their opponents' measures, as incoming governments were wont to do. Indeed excellence and high standards are the watchwords of this Government, as they were of its predecessor.

Could we be moving towards that Valhalla of "taking education out of politics"? Could Labour be framing policy not in the interest of any party or institution or lobby, but in the interests of those receiving it? This would really break new ground.

During my last teaching job, in a well-known London school now topping the league tables, the head told me that I should leave teaching "because my standards were too high". I cannot believe that any serious head would say that to a teacher today.

And the most cheering fact of all is that such views are no more likely to be expressed in the system run by Mr Blunkett, than in the system run By Mrs Shephard.

Elizabeth Cottrell was special adviser to Gillian Shephard from 1992-1997

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