Peter Hitchens

The conspiracy against grammar schools

A grammar school pupil, 1962 (photo: Getty)

I love a good hard debate, especially at a university. I can’t recall how many such clashes I have had, on God, free speech, marijuana, and Russia. But on the subject I really want to talk about, the destruction of the grammar schools, I find it harder and harder to get anyone to debate against me. Your guess is as good as mine about why the comprehensive school enthusiasts won’t argue with me anymore (they used to). It is certainly not that nobody cares about this ancient controversy. They do. A few years ago one university society tried for months to find me an opponent, and couldn’t – yet hundreds still turned up to the one-sided meeting we eventually decided to hold.

Two political parties were prepared to destroy – irrevocably – more than 1,200 proven grammar schools to make the new comprehensives possible

That university – York – was the one I attended myself in the early 1970s, when the dissolution of academically selective state schools had begun but was far from complete. I have since checked the archives and they confirm my memory, that many of my fellow undergraduates, at what was then a small and very selective plate-glass establishment, were young men and women from modest homes and first-class state schools. No egalitarian algorithms had been used to choose them. They were just very well qualified, thanks to good teaching. It also helped that the Vice-Chancellor in those days was Eric James, Lord James of Rusholme, a proper old-fashioned Fabian socialist. He had previously been the High Master of the mighty Manchester Grammar School, and was ferociously proud that it educated so many manual workers’ sons during his time in charge.

At that time, I was clueless about what was going on in British education, as we so often are about the great events of our own younger years.

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