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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder