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?

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.