Those opposing the possible expansion of selection in education announced by the PM last week are, perhaps not unreasonably, mainly concerned about ‘those who are left behind.’ They argue that grammar schools would cream off the brightest and the best, leaving the less academically able in some kind of sink Secondary Moderns.
But that kind of language – and thinking - is really astonishingly out of date. If we are to compete with the rest of the world, we really do need to help the academically minded as much as we can, alongside the practically, business, music or sport-minded. Whatever your particular capabilities are, the education system should be designed to help them develop to their greatest capacity. Holding others back for fear of ‘leaving people behind’ achieves nothing for either group. Ours should be a true meritocracy in every sphere.
“Averaging down”, finding the Lowest Common Denominator, which the socialists always like to do helps no-one. My own grammar school (albeit also charging modest fees set according to ability to pay) was closed down by Labour in the 1960s, thereby converting a socially-inclusive, academically excellent school into a private one, which none but the richest can afford to attend.
The fact is that at the moment the best possible education goes to those who can pay for it. There are 2500 private schools in England today, teaching 625,000 pupils. There are 163 grammar schools teaching 163000, and there are a shade over 3 million attending the 3268 comprehensives. What the PM is proposing, is the ability to provide the very best in education for the very brightest pupils whether or not they live in the right area (a post-code lottery) or happen to have wealthy parents.
Having said all of that, we are very fortunate in North Wiltshire in having simply outstanding comprehensive schools in Royal Wootton Bassett, Calne, Purton and Malmesbury (and of course in neighbouring Chippenham). We also have some of the very best private schools, such as St Mary’s Calne, a large number of selective schools in nearby Bath, and a small number of free schools as well. So I am not at all sure that I detect any need for, nor any appetite for a new grammar school in the area. When your education is as good as it is in our local schools, why change it? Our happy circumstances locally, however, should not of course prevent grammar schools elsewhere (as close as Salisbury).
Theresa May’s proposals seek to escape from the patronising egalitarianism of the 1960s, and free up educational provision so that everyone, whether they be academic, musical, sporting or practical, can have easy access to the education which will best develop those skills. It seems to me to be an imaginative, radical, and truly egalitarian proposal.