Access to rigorous, disciplined and culturally-fulfilling education is reserved in modern, progressive Britain for the religious and the rich. Those who believe in God are able to secure their children places in Church schools; note that many parents feign faith so as to gain access to these notoriously high-quality institutions. Rich parents are able either to pay directly for better schooling, through private school fees, or indirectly, by living in expensive school catchment areas. On paper, these schools are available for all children. In reality, they are highly selective.
They do not, however, select children based on their educational ability but rather on the size of their parents’ wallets.
With the same revolutionary vigour which influenced their shaping of almost all British institutions, the 1960s’ political class set out to shake up and reorganise the education system, with a specific aim to ‘shut down every f*****g grammar school in the country’, in the words of the then-Education Secretary Anthony Crosland. Grammar schools were, in their view, hotbeds of inequality exploited by the rich and exclusionary of the poor who were left to rot in second-rate secondary modern schools (I will return to these shortly).
Their answer: not to fix but to destroy.
Those less susceptible to this deleterious attitude attempted to point out that grammar schools – made widely available in 1944 – were of great benefit for clever but poor children. Indeed, by putting them on a more level playing field with rich children (clever or otherwise), grammar schools equipped poor but determined students with all the educational tools they required to rise to the top.
The pages of 1960s issues of the Times Educational Supplement (archived at the Library of Birmingham) are full of comparisons between the comprehensive education system, then in the minds of the reorganisers, and (for example) America’s education system of the time which was plagued by inequality. This is illustrated by the fact that 70 percent of students from one school located in a wealthy area went to college, compared to less than 10 percent of students from a school located in a poor area (January 11 1963). Both these schools were non-selective (academically, that is) and without fees yet it is clear they were not really available to all.
As another author commented on 28 May 1965, a comprehensive system would simply allow ‘rich parents [to] buy a better education than poor parents by going to live in expensive houses in a city’s best residential district’. These warnings (and the many others like them) were incredibly prophetic and should have been heeded. But, of course, they weren’t. The establishment chose not to listen but rather to push aside and ignore all criticism of their egalitarian utopia.
Fast forward to today and what do we find? The best schooling is reserved for the richest in society. A shocking report by the Sutton Trust (2017) found that ‘the catchment area of a top 500 [comprehensive] school [today attracts] a premium of around 20% compared to house prices elsewhere in the same local authority.’ In other words, to get your child into one of these higher-quality, non-fee paying, non-selective schools, you must be able to afford to live in a house £46,000 more expensive on average than others in the surrounding area. Unsurprisingly, though regrettably, this means that ‘43% of pupils at England’s outstanding secondaries are from the wealthiest 20% of families’ (Teach First, 2017).
Look at our universities and the same patterns emerge due to the financial barriers faced by clever poor children at the secondary level. A recent report found that only 4 in 10 attending the top universities went to academies or comprehensives, which in any case will likely have been located in the wealthy areas described above, inaccessible to the clever poor. The other 6 in 10 were lucky enough to have parents who could afford to pay directly for a better education through private fees, thus making them more appealing for outstanding universities which, understandably, wish to maintain their high academic standards.
Likewise, a study concluded last December that Oxbridge recruit more students from eight top schools than they do from 3,000 other schools put together (Sutton Trust). This disgraceful reality is a product of the great comprehensive experiment.
Modern supporters of this experiment argue that the above problems could be solved by shoveling great amounts of government cash into schools which are falling behind. This would be futile; inequality and poor educational standards (particularly for the poor) would persist, however much money was offered, as the system itself is flawed. Its aim is a political one: equality. This comes at the cost of educational rigour, if it comes at all (which I have shown it does not).
Rather, people ought to seriously consider the benefits available for all (particularly the poor) in a grammar school system. By seriously consider, I do not mean a Theresa May-style show of support for grammar schools in the run-up to an election followed by a subsequent silence on the issue. I also do not mean the jeering at the 163 remaining grammar schools in Britain which undoubtedly offer greater advantages for the wealthy as they are mainly located in wealthy areas. A long reference to this tiny rump of schools (as author Peter Hitchens calls them) is a straw man against the grammar school argument which proposes not for there to be 163 grammar schools in Britain but, again, for a whole system of grammars (around 1,500 in England alone).
So, you might ask, where is the proof that grammars would benefit the poor? A good place to start would be to examine who, in the past, got into grammar schools. Those who back comprehensives would have you believe that these selective schools were dominated by the children of the rich. This is far from the case. The Gurney-Dixon Report (1954) showed that 60 percent of students in grammar schools at the time were actually the children of manual workers (see below). You would be hard-pressed to find a modern good comprehensive school which could boast the same level of background diversity for these also select students, based on wealth.
Occupational background of pupils at maintained and direct grant schools.
On top of this, whilst we earlier found that most of those attending Britain’s best universities today come from privileged backgrounds, it can be observed that from the 1940s-60s (that is, while grammars were boosting poor children to the top of the educational ladder) the number of Oxbridge places taken by those from private schools was in free fall. Why? Poor children from grammars were taking their places. The 1966 Franks Report (available for study at Oxfordshire County Library) illustrates the dramatic extent of this. In 1938, six years before grammars were made more available for all, 62 percent of Oxford places were taken by students from private schools. By 1965, after 20 years-worth of educational excellence, this figure had fallen by 21 points to 41 percent.
This clearly demonstrates that the effect grammar schools were having on the education system was immense. Indeed, journalist Anthony Sampson, in his great work the Anatomy of Britain (1962) which examined ‘the workings of Britain – who runs it and how, how they got there, and how they are changing’, stated firmly that ‘the big grammar schools have caught up with the public schools in the competition for places to Oxford and Cambridge.’ I believe the following segment from his book to be highly pertinent to this debate:
‘‘The grammar schools realised quite suddenly,’ [Robert] Birley [headmaster of Eton from 1949-64] told me back in 1961, ‘about three or four years ago that they could get as many boys into Oxford and Cambridge as were clever enough, and that made things far more competitive. Ten years ago half the boys at Eton went to Oxford and Cambridge: now it’s only a third.’ ‘They are giving us a terrific run for our money,’ one public school headmaster told me: ‘I’ve been trying to get my head boy a place at Oxford for the last few months.’ The public schools, even Eton, have been forced to stiffen their entrance requirements, and they now throw out stupid boys quite ruthlessly. The grammar schools on their side are becoming more confident of their potential. ‘I think we’ve got the Establishment on the run,’ [my emphasis] said one leading headmaster.’
No wonder establishment politicians are silent on this issue. They know that extending rigorous education to the poorer ends of society would forfeit their own children’s chances of reaching the top. They would much rather keep the comprehensive system which enables their children to receive better education due to wealth whilst the children of those less fortunate than themselves are subjected to seriously second-rate educations (at best).
Of course some from poor backgrounds are fortunate enough to be read to by their parents and to be instilled with discipline and culture perhaps even being taught a musical instrument, as I was. This is, however, ever-increasingly rare. Comprehensives do not remedy these divides – they make them far, far worse.
I am not for one moment proposing that we should charge straight into reintroducing a full system of grammar schools whilst blinding ourselves to some of the faults which the 1960s system – cynically gutted by politicians who should have known better – certainly bore. Even if it were possible (which it is not) to simply ‘copy and paste’ the old system into today’s world, this should not be done as it would be utterly foolish. Sampson points out that there were regional differences in the distribution of grammars with the fewest appearing in the East. Distribution in the future (if we are to reintroduce) ought to be more equal. The eleven-plus exam has, for many decades, been a large cause for concern, yet this IS NOT required for future academically-selective schools.
Perhaps we should look to other countries to decide which form of selection might work best for us. Similarly, the secondary modern schools of the past were in need of much repair (note the word repair, not full system destruction) and special attention will need to be afforded to these in a (potential) future system. Ironically, performance levels among secondary moderns today and comprehensives are not too dissimilar, showing just how far we have come; but that is an issue for another day!
If you take only one thing from this article I hope it is an understanding of the fact that comprehensivisation has not removed selection from Britain’s education system; it has merely changed the focus of this selection.
Greater education is no longer awarded to those with greater educational talents, irrespective of background. Rather it is awarded to those whose only (important) achievement has been being raised by a wealthy family living in a wealthy area. Claims that grammars in the past were dominated by the rich are fallacious. To the contrary, I have shown that these schools were attended by rich and poor alike (often by more of the latter). As a result, many clever poor children were propelled into important positions in institutions, companies and wider society that they otherwise wouldn’t have been as able to reach.
The destruction of the grammar schools by 1960s (and later) politicians – whose own children’s educations were well looked after – reversed the trend of top university places being taken by clever, deserving pupils from poor backgrounds from those who were lucky enough to receive private educations. Yet the comprehensivisers choose to ignore this, despite the fact the information laid out here (and more) is openly available to all. Those in positions of power today continue to pedal the above lies as the current system benefits them and their children.
In view of the present ills in society which are particularly troubling for young people, can we afford to fail in children’s education? Education is such an important factor in the health of society that we really ought to rectify the damaging mistakes made over and over again in this sector by the political class.
Selection will always persist in education; our choice is whether this is based on wealth or ability. To continue with the former will only perpetuate the already-growing failings in the sector. To revert to the latter would allow all children (rather than only the rich) to understand their potentials which are currently ignored, at great cost to the country.