Monday, 16 February 2015

The Tory sell out on grammar schools

During the early post war years both Labour and the Conservatives broadly supported the Butler Act 1944 education system comprising, for the most part, grammar and secondary modern schools. Attention at that time was mainly directed towards the building of new schools and reducing the size of classes. However, by the time of the 1955 election, this consensus had ended and Labour was pledged, 'to remove from the primary schools the strain of the eleven-plus examination', fearing that it 'cramps the free and happy life which should stimulate children's early years. It penalises children who develop late and gives an inferior place in our education to the practical skills increasingly essential to our industrial efficiency'. Had a Labour government been elected this new policy would have required local authorities to submit schemes for abolishing the eleven plus, and to encourage comprehensive secondary schooling. Such an approach was rejected by the Conservatives who declared 'We shall not permit the grammar schools to be swallowed up in comprehensive schools. It is vital to build up secondary modern schools and to develop in them special vocational courses, so that they …offer a choice of education that matches the demands of our expanding economy'.

However, the campaign for comprehensive education was gaining strength and it became the received wisdom on the Left that it would provide a panacea for ending the 'divisions' within society. Benefits claimed for the comprehensive system were that it would eliminate selection at age 11 and provide education for all abilities in one school; allow children to develop at their own pace; provide secondary schooling for an area, ensuring that a cross-section of society was represented in a single school; encourage the creation of larger schools that would provide greater choice and better facilities for a wider range of subjects, and improve opportunities for continuing in education beyond the minimum leaving age.

Unfortunately, the driving force for comprehensives was not educational improvement but instead was motivated by political dogma. This constituted two main strands - egalitarianism and social engineering. Grammar schools were deemed 'divisive' on the grounds that they favoured the interests of the middle class whose children received a quality education at the 'expense' of working class children, who were supposedly stigmatised as failures at the age of eleven. So, it was argued, it would only be fair for all children to attend the same kind of school where every child could enjoy the same opportunities. Furthermore, divisions in society would be eliminated as children from all backgrounds worked and grew up together in a spirit of social harmony. This was the idealistic thinking that allowed Labour leader Harold Wilson, in keeping with the optimism of the time, to declare that comprehensives would become 'grammar schools for all', resulting in the 'levelling-up' of education for all children. There was no talk then about 'bog-standard comprehensives'. One of the most deeply entrenched delusions of the Left is that there is a vast reservoir of untapped working class talent, which only a hidebound ruling class intent on maintaining its privileges, fails to encourage and develop.

Perhaps the most defining feature of the post-war world is the extent to which a self-confident liberal elite has been enabled to pursue its subversive social agenda, and the ineffectual, craven response of politicians who claim to represent the views of the Right. So it is worth examining the reaction of the Conservative Party to the threat posed by comprehensive education. It should first be remembered that the 1944 Butler Act actually included a provision for the introduction of comprehensive education, and a number of 'progressive' education authorities took advantage of this to create comprehensive schools. Labour politicians became increasingly vocal in support of comprehensive education, whereas the Conservatives gradually became more hesitant and faltering in their commitment to grammar schools, a trend reflected in the election manifestos between 1959 and 1970.

The 1959 Conservative manifesto took a very firm line in support of grammar schools declaring, 'we shall defend the grammar schools against doctrinaire socialist attack, and see that they are further developed'. It should be remembered that in this election the Tories won their third election victory in a row with their majority increased to 100 seats. Although rising prosperity may have contributed a large part to this victory, it disproved the view that a strong defence of grammar schools was a vote loser. Unfortunately, by 1964 this support had become noticeably watered down when the manifesto observed 'of the many different forms of secondary school organisation which now exist, none has established itself as exclusively right'. It still condemned the 'socialist plan to impose the comprehensive principle [as] foolishly doctrinaire' in which the abolition of grammar schools 'would be the inevitable and disastrous consequence'. But the message now started to look a bit confused, as when it sought to 'encourage provision, in good schools of every description, of opportunities for all children to go forward to the limit of their capacity'. Thus there was no longer any ringing endorsement of grammar schools and the policy had now shifted closer to one of 'pick and mix' in educational provision. In this election Labour won with a wafer thin majority of three seats. A stronger defence of grammar schools might have swayed sufficient floating voters to have kept the Tories in power.

By the time of the 1966 election, Edward Heath had become Conservative party leader with a remit to 'modernise' the party, which is normally code for surrendering to liberal pressure. Heath, was the most successful of a significant number of senior Conservative politicians who would have been more at home in the Liberal Party. The manifesto commitment to grammar schools was weakened still further when it proclaimed, 'We will judge proposals for reorganisation on their educational merits; strongly oppose hasty and makeshift plans, especially in the big cities, for turning good grammar and secondary modern schools into comprehensive schools'. No talk now about comprehensive proposals being 'doctrinaire'. Labour won this election with a majority of nearly 100 seats, so once again there was no correlation between drifting with the liberal tide and electoral success. By the time of the 1970 election the Conservatives had completely abandoned their commitment to supporting grammar schools, boasting that 'many of the most imaginative new schemes abolishing the eleven plus have been introduced by Conservative councils', on the basis that 'the age of eleven is too early to make final decisions which might affect a child's whole future'. This shift in policy owes much to the influence of the notorious liberal Edward Boyle, who held the Conservative education portfolio, both in government and opposition, throughout most of the 1960s. His outlook did however, provoke opposition from Tory grass roots and, unusually for such a deferential party, the official motion on education at the 1968 party conference was defeated. To general surprise, the Conservatives won the 1970 election and thus the stage was set for the Education Secretary who abolished more grammar schools than any other - Margaret Thatcher.

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