Thursday, 20 October 2016

Tory rethink on grammar schools

After decades of appeasement to leftist sentiment the Tories are showing signs that they might be seriously intending to introduce new grammar schools in England. The Conservative Party has for a long time been in thrall to a 'progressive' education establishment, which is more interested in social engineering and egalitarianism than in ensuring that schools deliver a sound academic education to those who would most benefit from it. So would the revival of grammar schools be to the advantage of all pupils, or would it mean 'turning the clock back' as some critics have claimed?

One such critic is the former head of the schools inspectorate Michael Wilshaw who has opined that opening more grammar schools would be 'a retrograde step' that would damage the prospects of 'disadvantaged' children. He claims that, rather than boosting social mobility, selective education works against the interests of poorer children. He accuses grammar schools of being 'stuffed full' of middle class children thereby reducing the opportunities of those from the working class. Other critics have condemned academic selection as 'writing off' pupils at too early an age, which can create a sense of inferiority and failure that lasts throughout life.

It is certainly true that if you cream off about a quarter of the brightest pupils into grammar schools, then those who are left behind will clearly not benefit directly from a selective education system. However, there will still be a collective benefit to the nation if the most academically inclined children are taught separately, in a supportive environment free from the distraction, hindrance and sometimes disruption of their less studious peers. Through selection they are much more likely to make progress, achieve better qualifications, move on to higher education and be better able to fill the more mentally demanding jobs which are essential for the effective functioning of a nation. Everybody gains from a well educated elite who are able to make a disproportionate contribution to raising the wealth and outcomes of society as a whole.

On social mobility all the evidence suggests that this has significantly declined since the 1960s when most of the grammar schools were abolished and became comprehensive. This is because selective education provided a route by which the brightest working class children could be initiated into a middle class lifestyle, outlook and ethos, and away from the educationally constricting background in which they were being raised. Alas, it appears to be the case that most people of working class origin, both children and adults, are generally uninterested and sometimes hostile to more serious or artistic subjects. They appear to be quite content to remain this way and seem to have no great urge to better themselves either educationally, intellectually or culturally. Regarding the concern over a sense of failure, it is the case that we all have to come to terms with failure at one time or another, and to try and protect children from this experience is not helping them to adapt to the realities of life in the long run.

It is to be hoped that the Tories keep their nerve and do all they can to increase the number of grammar schools in England. However, given that a significant number of Conservative MPs appear to be opposed to their expansion, the current parliamentary arithmetic means that the government might have a difficult time driving through this most necessary reform.

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