Peter Hitchens

The golden age of the grammar schools

  • From Spectator Life

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.

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