The grammar schools proposal could be described as a “great right-wing fraud”, says David Blunkett… pretending you are delivering to the many what you know you can only deliver to the few
Next month I will take part in a gathering at Ruskin College, Oxford, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a seminal speech on education by Jim Callaghan.
Back in 1976, it was highly unusual for prime ministers to elevate education to the forefront of political policy-making.
Callaghan’s decision to make the speech did not reflect just the immediate, somewhat chequered history of translating grammar and secondary modern schools into comprehensives (which had begun in the 1960s), but also an awareness that the world was dramatically changing, and the old precepts of educating a relatively small number of people extremely well would no longer be socially or economically acceptable.
That is the context in which we need to see recent political pronouncements.
The argument for grammar schools in the post-war era and on the back of the Butler Act of 1944 was compelling. Children had been left behind.
Youngsters with real talent were floundering and a cohort of professionals, administrators and potential leaders were required, way beyond the capacity the private sector could deliver.
The country, of course, was divided between those who passed the 11-plus and those who found themselves in the nearby secondary modern with fewer facilities and resources, and usually inferior buildings. Teachers were divided, as well as children.
The philosophical difference between those who favour returning to a bygone, failed era and those trying to look to a more optimistic future, is the belief that there are just a few – say 25 per cent of young people – who can really “benefit” from a “truly” academic education. These words are used loosely and often!
It is certainly true that it is sensible for some schools to specialise in what they are good at, so parents know their child will have particular opportunities opened up in imaginative and creative ways. The parent chooses, the child has the aptitude. In a selective system, the school chooses, the aptitude is seen as being the ability to pass the selective test.
It is sensible for some schools to specialise in what they are good at
But here is the rub. The test is passed either because the primary schools feeding the grammar concentrate wholly on some pupils to the exclusion of others, or parents pay for tutors. The latter was recently highlighted by the Sutton Trust, and is known to be a crucial part of children’s progress in the private sector.
So, under the Theresa May and Justine Greening programme, primary schools would concentrate their attention on children they believed were “capable” of flourishing in grammars. Not only would they choose these children at an early point in their primary education, but teachers would be expected to concentrate on ensuring that they reached the point to get through the hoop.
So which children, in which primary schools, should be crammed (grammar schools should be renamed “crammers”), and what do we tell the rest of the children and their parents about this exercise?
If most of the children from so-called deprived areas are to go to grammar schools, then what we are effectively doing is creaming off at the bottom of the academic levels, in the way that we traditionally creamed off at the top! If we are not, then the whole exercise is a fraud. It leads most parents to believe that their child can get into the grammar school, whilst the government knows they cannot. This is reminiscent of what a former German chancellor described as the “great right-wing fraud”: pretending you are delivering to the many what you know you can only deliver to the few.
We need to make the offer to all youngsters to be able to develop their talent, to be able to find the particular niche that is appropriate to their future, and to build on it, whether vocational or academic.
Far be it from me to defend Michael Gove, but at least you could say one thing for him (recent u-turn notwithstanding). He at least seemed to believe that whatever he was doing was lifting standards for all children, not abandoning them to the second-class carriage of a train in which only the few could afford to travel first!
Lord Blunkett is former education secretary and member of the House of Lords