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Spectator Schools - Features

Different class

Ed Howker on the traditional grammar schools that are now maintaining their standards in the independent sector

25 March 2011

3:28 PM

25 March 2011

3:28 PM

 I’ve always found Britain’s education system ­bewildering. Our public schools are private; our church schools take the children of committed ­atheists; and ‘distance learning’ happens at home. My old school, Bradford Grammar School (BGS), is not a ‘grammar school’ in the way most ­people would imagine. It is a member of the Headmasters’ Conference and it charges fees.

That a school’s name tells you next to nothing about what it does reflects decades of bizarre and often contradictory political reform. Almost every piece of school legislation after Rab Butler’s 1944 Education Act, which created grammars, has meant trouble for my old school. At the time of its creation — 1548 — the school was intended to offer the best educational opportunities for children in the city. Butler’s reforms merely ensured that bright pupils could attend regardless of their families’ income by giving a direct grant to the school which would pay for the education of poorer pupils (on the condition that at least half the pupils would fit into this category).

It was not to last. Old Labour saw to that. In 1975, after the school had churned out people like David Hockney and a clutch of left-wing politicians, the direct grant was abolished and the school was forced to choose either to become a comprehensive or go private. Along with Manchester and Leeds grammars, Bradford went private. The jostling has continued since then: when the Tories introduced the assisted places scheme, 40,000 pupils were once again state-subsidised every year. But as soon as Tony Blair took office, these places were again abolished.

The net effect of these Labour cuts has been to crush social mobility in the very areas of Britain where the young most need a leg up.

It is thanks only to a successful fight to maintain educational standards and make more places available for girls that Bradford has held on to its principles as an independent. Now, not only does it continue to fund through large private bursaries a significant percentage of pupils from families who cannot afford the fees, but at GCSE its pupils perform three times better than the local average.

At the world schools debating championships, Bradford has the best record of any school in England; it has also in recent years produced rugby internationals, Olympic medallists and numerous other high-fliers. The kids are by and large smart and highly motivated and the education is well rounded (there are large classics and music departments).

Of course, Bradford Grammar does not boast the advantages of a major public school. There are no stables of horses for the pupils to ride. Nor is there an old boys’ network granting admission into the corridors of power and privilege. Some may consider these omissions to be so important that they dismiss the school entirely, but I’m not so sure. For one, though we former pupils have been lucky enough to have the benefit of a good independent education, we avoid the stigma that comes from having a public school background. While the left continues to concentrate its ire on a coalition government led by Eton and Westminster old boys, independent grammar pupils can walk those same corridors with their heads held high.

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