The common belief is that it was Labour education secretary Anthony Crosland. He sent out a circular in 1965 to local authorities urging them to end selective schools in their area. (Note “urge” not “order” as many people think.)
But there is a part of the story missing. Because it was actually the Conservative education secretary before him who made the first move.
Edward Boyle was a quiet, ferociously intelligent, Eton-educated but surprisingly moderate Conservative MP who in 1963 wrote in the foreword to a report on secondary school reorganisation that “all children should have an equal opportunity of acquiring intelligence and developing their talents and abilities to the full”. At a leading education conference that year he said that separating children at 11 would no longer be regarded as “the norm”.
As his junior minister Christopher Chataway later wrote: the decision cost Boyle his career. “If he had been bent upon political advancement there is no question as to which side he would have thrown his weight. The grammar schools were very popular in the Conservative party.”
Intelligence was a much more complicated commodity than people had once thought
So why did this smart and young minister not do what his party wanted? At just 39 he is still the second youngest to have moved into the education secretary seat. Then, he was the youngest. It takes courage at any age to go against your party. It takes guts of steel when still a political whippersnapper.
Writing in a collection of essays about Boyle after his death, Chataway says the evidence against selection was simply too overwhelming.
“The research evidence from a number of countries was accumulating to show that it was a very uncertain method of allocating benefits. Intelligence was a much more complicated commodity than people had once thought.”
Boyle also considered the system wasteful. “He could see the injustice and waste caused by a system that tried to divide children at the age of ten into two types, which for all the tactful circumlocution might just as well be called for the clever and the stupid.”
Given his party’s positive view of grammars, Boyle was cautious in his approach. He knew if he was too outrageous, there would be a kick-back: his own party would make moves to entrench the system once and for all. He also believed that if the move was dictated unilaterally it would push grammar schools into the private sector. It was a belief that was later borne out, when Labour’s furious demands for instant change caused many grammar heads to shrug, cash in their state chips, and start charging parents.
He could see the injustice and waste caused by a system that tried to divide children at the age of ten
One of Boyle’s preferred options was said to be moving the 11-plus to age 13 or 14, and then gradually moving grammars to become academic sixth forms – not a million miles from some sixth forms today.
Maurice Kogan, who also worked with Boyle at the department, describes his approach as undogmatic and always built on what came before. He tells the story of Boyle telling the Conservative conference in 1968: “I will join with you in the fight against socialist dogmatism wherever it rears its head.
But do not ask me to oppose it with an equal or opposite Conservative dogma, because in education it is the dogmatism itself which is wrong.”
The current education secretary, Justine Greening, has said that she believes opposition to grammars is dogmatic – that’s why she wants a consultation on their return. One can imagine that Boyle may have gently nudged her towards the evidence, and suggested she take time for a rethink.