The more I read about grammar schools, the more it feels like I’m watching some lonely, frowsy drunk, dancing on the tables when everyone else has gone home and tucked themselves up in bed. Please can we cut through the outrage and pure spleen on one side, the nostalgia and naivety on the other, and address this serious question with a degree of educational objectivity?
However closely you scrutinise the opposing views, however much you try to justify your position with research or evidence, what you end up with is a stark, uncompromising disagreement.
Either you believe the prime purpose of state schools is to drive social change, manipulating the cards poor children are dealt at birth as much as possible, or you believe some schools should be set aside to deliver a high-quality, academic education to a select minority who demonstrate ability early on. This purely political disagreement masqueraded as an ethical one 50 years ago. Please can we give it a decent burial so the band can go home?
A political victory by the social engineers of the 1970s took an earth scraper to the playing field, and not until someone acknowledged how poorly served academically minded children were and coined that ironically doltish phrase, 'gifted and talented' – as some kind of act of penance, I presume – did we see academically able children even begin to be more appropriately educated.
Clash of ideologies
What if we were to think about this head-on clash of ideologies differently? What if we were to step completely away from the politics and the recent history to focus solely on the notion of schools? After all, even the most diehard ideologue wouldn’t deny that there are different types of schools, and that those differences are culturally and educationally meaningful, and that they deliver different educational experiences to the children they serve.
The question then becomes, if we know we have one type of school that provides children with a high-quality educational experience by the preferred terms of social engineers, who regard breadth of life chances and opportunity as the crucial yardstick, then surely only a distinctly stupid dog in a particularly rank manger would object to them.
If you want children to have an educational experience that opens up their life chances and opportunities, then putting them in a grammar school is only rational. That’s why so many voters, regardless of class, like them.
The question, purely in terms of this notion of schools that remains unanswered, is what kind of schools should we provide for those who, for whatever reason, are not offered a grammar school education?
Positive life chances
Failing a test at 11 is only one of many reasons why a child might not gain a grammar school place, all of them starting in the home and family, which, however much the social engineers might resent it is, I’m sorry to tell them, inevitable. At least in a democracy.
The existing range of UK school types is wide and varied. Are we really saying that none of these: free schools, academies, faith schools, foundation and voluntary schools, studio schools, university technical colleges, that none of them are capable, as schools, of generating the same positive life chances grammar schools do?
Are grammar school opponents really suggesting that creating a grammar school in one location means that teachers and their managers in all neighbouring schools will of necessity deliver an inferior educational experience? That those same managers and teachers are in some magical way rendered professionally inept overnight?
If that’s the case, then surely it also follows you only regard one kind of educational experience as having any value: the very one you wish to deny children access to. Someone needs to control that dog.
The true weakness of grammars
When you have sufficient experience to know what both ends of the school scale really look like, when you know how demanding and difficult it is to teach children who are far cleverer than you will ever be, as well as how exhausting it is to actually teach anything in a school where behaviour has to be managed every moment of every lesson, then you also know where the weakness with grammar schools really lies.
However oversubscribed they may be, however brilliant their intake, compared to the commitment of staff in even middle-range schools in the private sector, some grammar school staff rely almost entirely on the exceptional motivation and ability of the children they recruit. Instead of, as happens in the very best of any type of school, stretching themselves as well as the children they teach.
The awkward news is, even if the current government succeeds in realising the particular grammar school vision set out in their recent Green Paper, because of this weakness, they will at some future date be facing just another set of school improvement issues.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author