Old, but not necessarily a good idea.(Photo: Flickr/Elliot Brown)
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Grammar schools aren’t the answer – and I should know, I went to one

David Cameron's u-turn and Ukip's adoration of them has grammar schools back in the headlines. But they don't work and they shouldn't be the priority – and I should know.

It’s election time, which always means we can look forward to some good old arguments being rehashed in an attempt to distract from a lack of original ideas. A case in point is Ukip, with its pledge to open a grammar school in every town. The long-time debate over grammar schools will undoubtedly continue to rage until 7 May and beyond – particularly in Kent – where the council has been supporting Weald of Kent Grammar School’s attempt to establish an annexe in Sevenoaks, a town ten-miles away with no grammar school. This sounds very much like the opening of a new grammar school, and effectively undermines legislation that prohibits the expansion of secondary grammars.

As a former Weald of Kent pupil, I listened to current students making the case for the annexe and it felt familiar. I too left the house everyday at 7.30am and didn’t get back until nearly 5pm – spending at least two and a half hours travelling just so that I could go to a grammar school. Like them, I would have much preferred to have spent less time on the bus and gone to school in my own town, although perhaps for different reasons – I was often desperately unhappy at grammar school. 

I remember as an early teen secretly lamenting the fact that I had passed my 11+ exam, and wishing I could have just gone to my local comprehensive school with my primary school friends. The only one from my school to get in to Weald, I couldn’t understand why I should be separated from my childhood friends just on the basis of a pass or fail in one exam in English and one in Maths. My teachers told me I would pass, so it was just expected that I would opt for a grammar school. 

Not wanting to rebel, I did what was expected of me, and remember the resentment that I felt towards any of my new classmates that had been to independent primary schools (there were a lot of them). Unlike me, or my ‘borderline’ primary school friends who didn’t quite manage to get a place at Weald, their parents had been pouring money into their education for years, paying for private tuition to prep them for passing their 11+. 

Coming from a low income household and a very socially diverse primary school, I remember being struck by just how boring and ‘middle class’ grammar school was in comparison. I was also the victim of snobbery -  a moment that stands out is one teacher talking about the ‘class system’ and telling us with disdain that working class people lived in terrace houses. I grew up in a terrace house - and as a teenager with low self-esteem, this made me feel even more separated from my classmates. Another memory that sticks out was a schoolfriend’s mum (a housewife who occupied most of her time doing her daughter’s homework) asking me, then aged 12, how my father (an artist) managed to earn enough to support a family. She implied he didn’t. 

I won’t deny I got a good education and did well in exams, but I had plenty of friends growing up that went to local comprehensive schools and did equally well. I’d like to think that if I hadn’t gone to grammar school, I’d have done well too. I was hardworking, and, fundamentally, always had the support of my parents. It’s the people who don’t have those strong foundations at home that should be the focus of our politicians, whether or not they have the ability to pass a school exam at the age of 11. Forget grammar schools - we should be offering first-class education to all children, whatever their social background or academic ability.

Anna Villeleger is a freelance journalist. She tweets as @annajourno.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.