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7 December 2022

The false promise of grammar schools

In his new book, A Revolution Betrayed, Peter Hitchens overstates the merits of selection in state education.

By Tomiwa Owolade

Grammar schools transformed British society after the Second World War. They educated cultural figures from Alan Bennett and Joan Bakewell to Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. By the middle of the 1960s, the leaders of both the Labour and Conservative parties – Harold Wilson and Ted Heath – were grammar school boys. Margaret Thatcher went to a grammar school.

The 1944 Education Act introduced free secondary education for all children in England and Wales, reshaping state-funded schooling into a tripartite system of grammar, secondary modern and technical schools; the selective eleven-plus exam determined eligibility for grammar school. For the first time, an elite education was now available to many children from deprived or average backgrounds. 

The novelist and academic David Lodge, who went to St Joseph’s Academy in Blackheath, titled the first volume of his memoirs Quite a Good Time to Be Born because he was part of the first generation to benefit directly from the Education Act. John Carey, who was born a year before Lodge, has described his own memoir The Unexpected Professor as “among other things, my tribute of gratitude to a grammar school”. This is the legacy that the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens is trying to defend in his new book.

A Revolution Betrayed is a history of the rise and swift fall of the grammar school, and a case for bringing back academic selection in state secondary schools. By the middle of the 1960s, a consensus had formed in Wilson’s Labour government that education by academic selection was unfair; Wilson wanted an excellent education for every student and not just the minority who passed the eleven-plus. His education minister, Anthony Crosland, vowed to “to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland.”

In 1965, around 1,300 grammar schools existed in England. Only 163 remain now. Most of them were abolished in the 1970s – many during Margaret Thatcher’s time as education secretary in Ted Heath’s government. A law passed by Labour in 1998 made it illegal to create new grammar schools. This law still stands. For Hitchens – who, as in most of his books and journalism, is issuing a jeremiad, and who attended the fee-paying Leys School in Cambridge – this is a tragedy.

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In his youth, Hitchens was a member of the International Socialists organisation (later the Socialist Workers Party), and he writes in the emphatic tones of a polemicist. He compares the closure of grammar schools, for example, to “the Dissolution of the Monasteries four centuries before”.

But what makes the book fascinating is that Hitchens, who now describes himself as a socially conservative social democrat, invokes an old left-wing defence of grammar schools to support his case for reviving academic selection; his arguments are underpinned by a certain kind of idealism. The Conservative Party, he writes, has “no particular belief in the virtues of academic selection. If a return to such selection is to come about, it will have to come from the left.” He points out that many Fabians in the early 20th century supported grammar schools. Sidney and Beatrice Webb (co-founders of this magazine) saw grammar schools as a good thing because they plucked talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds and helped them into positions of power.

Another intellectual influence on the early Labour Party, RH Tawney, favoured grammar schools as they enabled Britain to “forget the tedious vulgarities of income and social position, in a common affection for the qualities which belong, not to any class or profession of men, but to man himself”. As Adrian Wooldridge writes in his recent history of meritocracy, The Aristocracy of Talent, there was a time when Labour was “the party of merit rather than levelling, and opportunity rather than equality”. This is the period in which Hitchens finds lessons for today’s Labour.

He points out that getting rid of grammar schools did not eliminate inequality in education. “One form of selection, by ability,” he writes, “was quickly replaced by another more unfair form of selection, selection by parental wealth.” The removal of grammar schools was not accompanied by any challenge to private schools, institutions of privilege that were left untouched.

Fee-paying schools had faced a direct threat from grammar schools after the Second World War. According to Wooldridge, the proportion of children attending fee-paying schools in England and Wales declined from 6.7 per cent in 1955 to 4.5 per cent in 1978. The public-school share of Oxbridge places fell from 55 per cent in 1959 to 38 per cent in 1967. In his memoir John Carey argued that “the grammar schools, had they survived, would by now have all but eliminated the public school contingent in Oxford and Cambridge, with far-reaching effects on our society”.

Hitchens shares this view: “If you really want to do away with privileged fee-charging schools in a free society,” he writes, “academically selective state education must surely be the best way.” But after the educational policies of the Labour and Conservative governments of the 1960s and 1970s, many of the best grammar schools in the country – including Manchester Grammar School, Bradford Grammar School and Oxford High School – elected to become fee-paying schools rather than transition to comprehensives. Selection by wealth won the fight.

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Fee-paying schools continue to educate much of Britain’s elite. Only 7 per cent of British children are privately educated, but, according to a 2016 survey by the Sutton Trust, three-quarters of barristers went to independent schools; so did one third of MPs, over half of the partners at leading London law firms, and more than half of the editors of leading newspapers. Over the past 25 years, 60 per cent of British Oscar winners were privately educated, as were around 30 per cent of Oxbridge’s 2022 intake. 

Nevertheless, the case against expanding grammar schools is straightforward. They are not good at increasing social mobility. In 2016 only 2.5 per cent of the kids in grammar schools, for instance, qualified for free school meals (an indicator of poverty). Hitchens would argue that this is a supply problem: grammar schools are so few, and the demand for them is so high, that affluent families will elbow out poorer families by spending more on resources such as extra tuition.

Increasing the number of grammar schools, Hitchens implies, would give poorer children a greater chance of getting into them. But what if it didn’t? The gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children widens in those areas where selective schooling is present. Hitchens claims in his book that, “Support for academic selection does not mean support for the exact system of selection which was abolished after 1965.” But selection is still selection. Grammar schools tend to reinforce, rather than dismantle, social and economic inequalities.

However, Hitchens argues that the existing state school system is also riddled with inequalities. He cites  a Sutton Trust report which found that “more than 85 per cent of the highest-performing state schools take in fewer disadvantaged pupils than they should for their catchment area”. Some successful comprehensive schools are located in areas with high house prices, so they tend to recruit more children from affluent families. He also mentions a study from Teach First, which found that 43 per cent of students at England’s outstanding state secondary schools come from the wealthiest 20 per cent of families. Poorer pupils, Hitchens notes, “are half as likely as the richest to be heading into an outstanding secondary school”. Many affluent families who send their children to comprehensive schools try to give them an advantage in other ways, for example, by paying for clubs and extracurricular activities.

When I was at a comprehensive school in south-east London, there was little mixing between the white working class and white middle-class kids; the latter were far more likely to be friends with ethnic-minority kids of whatever class background. This was exacerbated by pupils being put into sets for maths, English and science. For the white children, their sets tended to correspond to social class. But the academic status of pupils from African, Caribbean and Asian backgrounds was much more loosely linked to their socio-economic class. The group with the worst academic outcomes in British schools today is white working-class boys.

Despite its shortcomings, Hitchens’ book reminds us that inequalities are found in other forms of education too. Are we going to stop well-educated people from passing on their combined cultural and social capital to their children? Are we going to prevent wealthy people from moving to certain areas so we can better manage the catchment areas for schools?

Proclaiming that we need to make schools better is not good enough. Talented pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds should have access to the best education – but as a society we also need to cater for those who are not academic. We must stop prizing social mobility and focus instead on creating a society in which everyone has dignity and the chance to flourish, irrespective of whether they go to a top university.

A Revolution Betrayed: How Egalitarians Wrecked the British Education System
Peter Hitchens
Bloomsbury Continuum, 224pp, £20

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special