Matthew Dancona

Debating selection

Debating selection
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It never fails. Assemble a group of highly intelligent people (the more, the merrier), invite them to debate the merits of selective schools, stand well back and enjoy the fireworks.

So it was this beautiful summer’s evening at the Royal Geographical Society, as The Spectator hosted its inaugural debate, chaired by Andrew Neil  – the motion before the audience being the quite straightforward proposition that “grammar schools are best”. Before the panel of speakers began their gladiatorial combat, the votes stood at: 175 for the motion, 37 against, and 48 don’t knows.

David Davis, the former Shadow Home Secretary, and long-time champion of grammar schools, kicked off proceedings with an impassioned defence of the selective system. “Every chance I had,” he said, “was created by my grammar school”. Such institutions, were, he added, “the greatest instrument for social mobility ever invented.” Now, “working class children are mainly left to fester” and the public schools rule the roost once more: including (Mr Davis chose not to add) the highest reaches of the Conservative Party.

Charles Clarke, a former Education Secretary, took umbrage at the wording of the motion, but having agreed to oppose it, declared that there was no scientific basis for the claims made by the advocates of selective education, and that it was in any case pointless to generalise about any kind of school. That did not stop him from claiming that the era of the 11-plus had been “pernicious for the quality of education”; his objection that such segregation demotivated the young earned him a round of applause. It was essential, Mr Clarke insisted, to “equip all, not some”.

Stephen Pollard, driven in 1995 from the Fabian Society for supporting grammar schools, now editor of the Jewish Chronicle, said he was astonished by the “Little England” prejudice of those who opposed academic selection – a system so common and uncontroversial on the continent and elsewhere in the world. Instead of extending the ethos of the grammar schools, we had managed in this country to vandalise a “gloriously successful” engine of social mobility.

Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust and former editor of The Times, said he would “hit anyone who calls me an egalitarian”. But he had seen first-hand how an uprising of Tory voters had killed off the grammar schools and watched as the Conservative Party attributed its defeats in 1964 and 1966 to the socially divisive force of the 11-plus: no wonder Margaret Thatcher opposed what Sir Simon called “a true educational apartheid”. The idea of going back was, he said, “simply inconceivable”. There was an argument for selection, but not at such an early age: “Eleven is obscene; 16 is not obscene.”

Graham Brady, who resigned his front bench position in May 2007 in protest at David Cameron’s opposition to grammar schools, said there were now “forty years of evidence” to show that the comprehensive experiment had failed. Indeed, in areas where grammar schools survived, secondary moderns often outshone comprehensive schools. Yes, state school admissions to Cambridge were rising. But the successful candidates were coming from grammar schools: “the egalitarian delusionists,” Mr Brady said, had been proved wrong.

Not so, parried Fiona Millar, a doughty foe of selection and defender of comprehensives. Though she had been to a grammar school, all her children had been to comprehensives and done better than she had. It was simply incorrect, she said, to claim that selection somehow raised standards all round, and morally wrong to champion a system that “relies on rejection.” Better, she added, to get rid of the remaining grammar schools altogether and focus on the state system as a whole: to “grasp the nettle and be bold”.

From the floor came precisely the sort of impassioned, informed interventions one would expect of Spectator readers. A former teacher at a girls’ public school said that the experience had converted her to the merits of the comprehensive system. An 11-plus failure from Bethnal Green pointed out that rejection had not stopped him being a business success – although he conceded, when asked by Andrew in the chair, that his experience was probably the exception that proved the rule.

If setting and streaming were acceptable, asked another participant, then why was selection by schools so morally dubious? And why, another reader wanted to know, was it legally possible to hold a local ballot to close down grammar schools, but not to set them up? Robert McCartney of the National Grammar Schools Association – to whom warm thanks are owed for sponsoring the event - made a powerful defence of the selective system in Ulster which, he said, had served his own family so well.

Final result: 179 for the motion “Grammar schools are best” (up four); 84 against (up 47); and four “don’t knows”. A victory for the 11-plus gang, but a swing towards their opponents: and – in sum – a first-class evening of debate in the best traditions of the magazine.