Grant Woodward: Welcome return of the grammar schools at last

THIS week, in a welcome and somewhat rare outbreak of common sense, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan signalled that she will approve the first new grammar school for half a century. Hallelujah, say I and millions of other middle class parents. May it be the first of many.

Saturday, 13th December 2014, 3:12 am

Fifty years is an awfully long time to wait. And in those intervening years a system that encapsulates everything the Conservative Party is meant to stand for has fallen into rack and ruin. At their high-point in 1965, there were nearly 1,300 grammars; now there are just 164.

When it comes to that much vaunted but all-too-elusive concept known as social mobility, grammar schools provide the greatest impetus going. The boys and girls from modest backgrounds have a chance to get on, get ahead and get themselves into the top universities and jobs. And if you want evidence of the impact this systematic dismantling of selective education has had, you only need look at the make-up of the current Cabinet, dominated as it is by products of the country’s elite public schools.

Of course, the naysayers will insist that bringing back grammar schools is fundamentally wrong. It will simply end up benefiting children whose parents have money to spare on tutors to coach them through the entrance exams. Funnily enough, this argument is usually espoused by the very people, be they politicians, media pundits or academics, who have enjoyed the privilege of a private education, followed by three years at one of the leading universities. Surely they’re not frightened of a bit of healthy competition?

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It was certainly telling that when the BBC broadcast a two-part series entitled The Grammar School: A Secret History a couple of years back, it was attacked by Oxbridge academics for painting too rosy a picture of the system.

Similarly, when the last Labour government signalled a thawing of its cold war on grammar schools by announcing plans to forge links between them and comprehensives in a bid to raise standards, they were attacked by then Harrogate MP and Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis.

The former headteacher, who attended Burnley Grammar School, said it was “a sad day for those who believe in the principle of comprehensive education”. A case of “I’m alright Jack, pull up the ladder”?

The truth is that bringing back grammar schools will simply level the playing field and help close the growing gulf between society’s elite and the rest. At the moment there’s a potentially disastrous vacuum that lies between the privately-educated political and cultural elite, who dominate the top positions in every field, and everyone else.

On the claim that it will only benefit the well-off, selection processes can be tailored to identify those who are intellectually strongest. Nice-but-dims whose intensive coaching hasn’t left them with an original thought in their bodies can soon be rooted out.

When I went to grammar school in the late 1980s, there were boys there from every background. Yes, many were from middle class families, but there were a good number whose parents were genuinely working class and certainly not wealthy enough to have had their offspring tutored within an inch of their lives.

Of course, this isn’t to say that anyone who doesn’t win a place at their local grammar school should be thrown on the scrapheap. During his ill-fated time as Education Secretary, Michael Gove was wrong to continue the war on grammar schools but right to insist on a drive to increase the standards of comprehensive schools.

The trouble is that the comprehensive system can only be improved so far, because no school can be all things to all pupils, and the students the comprehensive system tends to neglect are the brightest. If our children are to maximise their potential, they need to learn at their own pace. And some can learn at a faster rate than others.

The Government is rightly moving away from Labour’s insistence on bashing square pegs into round holes, acknowledging that further education isn’t for everyone by increasing the number of apprenticeships and widening access to vocational courses. Will it also see sense and approve a whole raft of new grammars?

A YouGov opinion poll last year showed overwhelming support for more grammars in London, with even 57 per cent of Labour voters supporting the idea. House prices in areas with a choice of grammars, such as Altrincham in Greater Manchester, are soaring.

And it’s not hard to see why. Grammars teach a traditional curriculum, have smart uniforms, insist on high levels of discipline and promote participation in team sports. Their raison d’etre was to emulate the famous public schools, offering a first-class education to children whose parents could never afford private schooling.

And if any further proof were needed of their usefulness as a catalyst for social mobility you only need to consider the fact that between 1964 and 1997, every single British Prime Minister went to a grammar school. Here’s hoping Nicky Morgan has the courage of her convictions and the grammar school pupil’s time comes again.