It is almost mandatory, if you want to discuss grammar schools, to swap personal histories. Here’s mine: I am the beneficiary of three generations of social mobility, three generations of academic selection. My grandfather won a free scholarship to a public school (Christ’s Hospital) and left school at 16: his family needed him to work. But his education allowed him to become achartered surveyor. Both of my parents enjoyed free, selective education in schools that now charge about £16,000 a year.
My brothers and I won scholarships to private secondaries. The alternative comprehensives were poor quality and a bit scary — my parents were faced with terrible state-school options. Then the story gets better. I live three streets away from where I grew up, but the comprehensive has been replaced by an academy school rated ‘-outstanding’. The charity I set up, New Schools Network, helped found a new free school in the area. While I was at No. 10 working for Cameron and May, two more appeared. So mine is a different problem: choosing one of three excellent state primaries for my daughter.
So where did it all go right? Successive governments have built upon their predecessors’ achievements — the trend, from Kenneth Baker onwards, has been towards giving schools autonomy and promoting a system where parents choose schools. Ministers also persuaded a small but growing number of brilliant and courageous reformers to act — to fight and win the battles that politicians over the years had lost.
The reformers include academy groups such as Ark and Harris, great headteachers like Rachel de Souza and Michael Wilshaw (now head of Ofsted), and groups of teachers who have set up free schools. They have been vilified by unions, activists and the press. Their motives and achievements are constantly questioned, although not by the parents who flock to their oversubscribed (and non-selective) schools.
They haven’t succeeded everywhere — there are still plenty of areas with bad schools — but they have introduced ‘knowledge-based’ curriculums, tough standards and discipline, and high expectations.