How to scrap grammar schools

If Anthony Crosland had never tried to carry out his famous (and obscenely expressed) threat to close every grammar school in England, it is likely that 11-plus selection would have quietly passed away long ago. In the 1960s the arguments against grammar schools seemed overwhelming and they were increasingly evident to parents. It was becoming widely accepted, even by those sympathetic to elitism, that 11 was just too early an age at which to consign three-quarters of the nation's children to the academic dustbin and that vast quantities of talent, mostly working class, was going to waste. What was most startling was the evidence that secondary modern schools actually depressed children's IQ, so that their charges came out stupider than when they went in. Many of the local councils that pioneered comprehensives were Tory-controlled, such as Leicestershire and Hertfordshire. Indeed, most of the early pressure for comprehensives came from the middle classes, who could not bear the idea that any of their children might fail. The issue was not hugely controversial in the party political sense. Crosland made it so, putting the grammar schools at the top of his agenda and seeming to pit a dictatorial Whitehall against the town and county halls.

Today the arguments against grammar schools are as strong as they ever were, particularly since the unskilled manual jobs, for which the secondary moderns largely prepared their pupils, have all but disappeared. Those who suggest that a revived grammar school sector would bring affluent, influential parents back to the state system, thus giving them an interest in its success, talk nonsense. If such parents came back at all, they would simply have an interest in the grammar schools as they did in the 1950s and 1960s, when the secondary moderns suffered inferior funding to a quite scandalous extent. It is equal nonsense to argue that grammars would give chances to poor children that are denied them by comprehensives, since the large majority of the poor wouldn't get to them in the first place. (If you doubt this, consider the wealth of evidence that many children from poor homes have fallen hopelessly behind their classmates as early as seven, never mind 11.) Far better, as David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, proposes, to bribe the inner-city comprehensives to make special provision for their brightest children.

But Mr Blunkett is right also not to repeat the Crosland mistake. He will not try to enforce the abolition of the 164 grammar schools remaining in England (one in 20 of all secondary schools). Instead each school will continue to select unless a ballot of local parents decides otherwise. Here, expediency - placating the Daily Mail - usefully coincides with principle - accepting the autonomy of local decision-making. Mr Blunkett may well be criticised for leaning too far towards the first, since his legislation makes it extraordinarily difficult for comprehensive supporters to trigger a ballot (they have first to organise a petition signed by 20 per cent of local parents). But there is simply no point in allowing the government's educational programme to be dominated by localised wrangles over an issue that can still arouse raw ideological passions. (The Tories took a similar view and restrained themselves from a widespread reintroduction of grammar schools, while doing everything possible to rig the system in favour of ambitious middle-class parents.) The challenge is to restore public confidence in the comprehensives, attended by 90 per cent of our children. Once this is done, parental demand to do away with the remaining grammar schools will be irresistible.

The big issue, then, is not the fate of grammar schools in Kent and Ripon - which are among the areas where ballots are likely to be triggered - but the Blunkett vision for comprehensives. Central to this is the idea of specialist schools, in the arts, technology, languages and sports, which would be able to select up to 10 per cent of their entrants by aptitude in the relevant specialist area. The intention is that, by 2003, as many as one in four secondary schools will specialise. Old Labour, dedicated to the idea that a comprehensive system means covering the country with identical 11-18 schools (it even, for a time, opposed sixth-form colleges), will argue that this is just wicked old selection by the back door. A more optimistic view is that it will create a genuine diversity in schooling, open to parents of all classes and incomes, for an age that expects choice in public as well as private services. Either way, the debate, so far almost ignored by politicians and press in favour of the dreary old ding-dong about grammar schools, ought to begin.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?