Some lucky parents have already solved their school and university problems. They have managed to insert their young into state grammar schools. If all goes according to plan, they will need to pay no gigantic fees, their sons and daughters will be educated to what at least looks like a high standard, in orderly classrooms — and an increasingly anti-middle-class Oxbridge will not be prejudiced against them when they apply. I envy them, having myself spent the GDP of a small Latin American country on private education over the past three decades, with variable results. But I also increasingly wish it were not so.
The anachronistic existence of a tiny rump of surviving academically selective state secondary schools, mostly in well-off areas in commuter range of big cities, seems to squash the argument for restoring such schools to the whole country. These places are beyond doubt indefensible fortresses of privilege. This is not their fault, or the fault of parents, teachers or heads. It is the fault of a national comprehensive school system which has made good state education rare. And by making it rare, it has encouraged the middle class to spend heavily on obtaining it. Who can doubt that money and clout, coaching and prep schools, make it easier for the well-off to get their children into these grammars? Most of the better comprehensives are also open to privilege, usually through the famous house-price premium in the better catchment areas, which has made education into a game of homes. Nobody seems to mind this, as alleged comprehensives are strangely uncontroversial, despite their decades of failure and mediocrity.
But left-wing liberals, especially well-off ones, have a lingering vestigial hatred of grammar schools, which offer a different kind of equality from the one they claim to want. So the opponents of selection by ability say that the grammar schools of Kent and Buckinghamshire tell us all we need to know about this form of education — that it is unfair and that its claims of social mobility are bogus.
What you really need to beat this argument is the buried history of the day before yesterday, the story nobody now knows about the great storming success of state grammar schools and their vanished allies, the direct grant schools of England and the grant-aided schools of Scotland. These rather wonderful places nurtured talents as diverse as Alan Bennett, the late Alan Rickman and Admiral Lord West. They conquered Oxbridge and the professions, and were on the verge of elbowing aside the great public schools when, in a few brief years of destruction, they were wiped from the map.
Grammar schools were creating a new elite, more open to all the talents than before. Their standards were higher than those of any British secondary schools today, private or state: the whole examination system had to be devalued to cope with their disappearance. This was the forgotten age of the ‘brain drain’, when the USA sought British scientists, educated to a higher level than its own comprehensive high schools could attain, and when a set of English A-levels was widely believed to be the equal of an American college degree.
The period in which this happened is perhaps the most thoroughly forgotten of all. The direct grants and the grant-aided schools often survive, but only as fee-charging private establishments largely closed to the state-school boys and girls from poor homes who once attended them free of fees and made them greater. They have a few bursaries — good for them — but these do not begin to make up for the gap left by the abolition of selection by ability. Among them are Oxford’s High School for girls and Magdalen College School, Latymer Upper in London, Bradford Grammar, Manchester Grammar, Bedford Modern, the two Perse schools in Cambridge, Portsmouth Grammar and Dauntsey’s in Wiltshire. In Scotland the names were just as illustrious: Dollar Academy in Clackmannanshire, Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen, Hutchesons’ schools in Glasgow, George Heriot’s in Edinburgh. Modern politicians like to go on about co-operation between the state and private sectors. But in these schools governments of both parties had that co-operation, and governments of both parties threw it away.
They threw it away because it could only work in an academically selective system. And so they were doomed. For while most people in the Labour party in the 1960s were fiercely in favour of abolishing selection by ability, the Tories were not especially interested in defending it. So in the course of about ten years after 1965, almost 1,300 English and Welsh state grammar schools were destroyed, all over the country, and the direct grants vanished soon afterwards. In most cases, there is no real trace of the old grammars left, especially in the poor areas where they once stood in large numbers. Their equivalents in Scotland were wiped out even more rapidly. Only in Northern Ireland, where Catholic-Protestant division hugely complicates education matters, did they survive more or less untouched.
And here is the astonishing thing. Selection by ability, largely through a questionable intelligence test supposed to cancel out class prejudice, became unpopular, thanks to the baby boom which after 1956 made the grammar schools much harder to get into. But the grammar schools themselves remained so popular that the Labour prime minister who began their abolition, Harold Wilson, personally pledged in a TV interview that they would be abolished ‘over his dead body’. And his party’s manifesto made a slippery promise of grammar school education for all.
What people did not like were the secondary modern schools, attended by those who were not picked for the grammars. A wise response might have been to build more grammar schools. There were never enough at the best of times. Or selection could have been reformed — though in fact it was never as rigid as is now claimed (Germany still has academic selection without an 11 plus test). The secondary moderns, often rapidly improving by the early 1960s, could also have been transformed by the money eventually spent on comprehensive reorganisation. But none of these routes was followed. The grammar schools were almost all destroyed. And the schools which replaced them are more like the once-loathed secondary moderns than they were like the grammar schools.
How very strange, to go through the whole education system of an advanced country, locate the one bit of it that worked, and smash it up. Yet that is what we did, and that is what lies behind the mess we are now in.