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11 December 2016

Face it: none of the world’s best education systems include grammar schools

The week that was, from grammar school delusions and Labour floating voters to why republicans will love The Crown.

By Peter Wilby

Greeting the latest results of the OECD’s triennial tests of educational standards – which, as usual, show that British children, in reading and maths particularly, are average at best – Nick Gibb, the schools minister, says that grammar schools, which the government plans to expand on a large scale, will boost our scores in future. So, can he explain why, whether it’s reading, maths or science, none of the top ten countries, which include China, Singapore, Japan, Canada and Finland, has its own version of anything resembling English grammar schools? True, some of them place pupils into academic and vocational streams and even separate schools at the age of 14, but none selects at 11 as our grammar schools do.


The wrong Edward?

The police investigation into allegations that Edward Heath was a child sex abuser – the chief constable of Wiltshire says, “I will not be buckling under pressure . . . to conclude the investigation prematurely” – baffles everybody who knew him. Apart from anything else, Heath was constantly accompanied by police protection officers from the 1970s on. But nobody seems to have noticed a curious coincidence. Among the footballing figures accused of child abuse is a man called Eddie Heath, Chelsea’s chief scout throughout the 1970s. Did the police or one of their computers muddle the two?


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Last of the Third Way

The Third Way, the political approach favoured by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, enjoyed an Indian summer in Italy. Matteo Renzi, who became prime minister as leader of the centre-left Democratic Party in February 2014, frequently named Blair as an inspiration. His jobs act abolished a law protecting workers from unjustified dismissal. Like his “education reforms”, which introduced merit pay for schoolteachers, it faced the fierce opposition from trade unions that Blair always saw as a vindication.

Renzi was briefly the most popular mainstream politician in Europe, with a public approval rating of 74 per cent months after taking office. But Indian summers do not, by definition, last long. Renzi’s approval rating was down to 35 per cent within a year. Now, he has resigned, after losing a referendum on constitutional reform that became a plebiscite on his government.

Across Europe and America, politics throws up new questions. It should be clear to Labour MPs, to French socialists choosing their next presidential candidate and even to Blair himself that a retread of the Third Way doesn’t answer any of them.


Labour floaters

I seem to have become a floating voter. According to the British Election Study, people identify more strongly with how they voted in the EU referendum, whether for Leave or Remain, than they identify with the political party they support in elections. This chimes with my own experience. Friends and relations who lack clear party preferences come out emphatically for Leave or Remain, while I, a diehard Labour Party member, remain conflicted on EU membership, though I did vote to stay in.

Labour’s position – nominally in the Remain camp, but lukewarm – suits me, as it will suit others who lack firm opinions on the great issue of our day. Only the Lib Dems and Ukip have unequivocal commitments on the EU. So we can vote Labour as floating voters once voted Lib Dem. The Richmond Park by-election, however, suggests there aren’t many of us.


The Grayl on the train

In the 1990s, the Tories botched the entire national rail system by splitting British Rail between more than 100 separate companies running passenger services, freight services, mail and parcel trains, track maintenance, track renewal and so on. (Labour came up with something even more complicated for the London Tube, though the worst of it was long ago abandoned.)

Now Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, says that: “I intend to start bringing back together the operation of track and train.” He also announced that a new line linking Cambridge and Oxford will be opened. In future, when passenger service franchises are awarded, they will be run by joint management teams from each private train operating company and Network Rail, a public body.

The public, Grayling says, want to know who is in charge and do not understand the present system. They will probably not understand the new one either. If public understanding were the main criterion for how the railways should be run, they would have been renationalised long ago.


Cold hearts and coronets

Having caught up with the Netflix series The Crown, I have decided that it is essential viewing for republicans. It is a fictional drama based on real people and true events, not a drama documentary. But it is subversive of the monarchical ideal. The central message is chillingly conveyed to Elizabeth II by her grandmother Queen Mary: “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth, to give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty . . . you are answerable to God, not the public.” She, as Queen, must put “loyalty to the ideal you have inherited” above all other loyalties and give no hint, even by a smile or nod, of her opinions. Faintly, Elizabeth asks: “But what about me?” The monarch, she later tells her sister Margaret, should have no character, no individuality.

She is forced into several personal betrayals: for example, of her husband, Philip, who is not allowed to keep the Mountbatten family name, and of her sister, Margaret, who is not allowed to marry the man she loves, even though she had promised otherwise to both. Elizabeth is never allowed to get her way, even on who should become her private secretary.

The Crown shows something cold and inhumane – almost a moral vacuum – at the heart of monarchy. Is this really an ideal that “ordinary people” should strive towards? 

This article appears in the 06 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump