Ross Clark

Theresa May should ignore the privately-educated elite and press on with her grammar school plans

Theresa May should ignore the privately-educated elite and press on with her grammar school plans
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It has become customary in the great grammar school debate to declare where you went to school. I attended the boys’ grammar school in Canterbury, which was mentioned by Ysenda Maxtone Graham in her piece in this week’s magazine. Ysenda chose not to make such a declaration herself, so I will do it for her: she attended the King’s School, the poshest of the three public schools in Canterbury, which inhabits the precincts of the cathedral. I wouldn’t normally make an issue of someone’s schooling, but it is rather relevant in this case because Ysenda appears to be disturbed by what she sees as the social apartheid between Kent’s grammar school children and those who attend other state schools. She writes:

'In my childhood home town of Sandwich, Kent, the two schools, Sir Roger Manwood’s grammar school and the Sandwich Technology School, have staggered going-home times to avoid the fights on the station platform that used to happen every afternoon… Self-conscious Manwood’s girls change out of their uniform as soon as they get home from school in order to avoid being mocked by ‘Techies’ in the Co-op.'

I can’t speak for Sandwich, but in seven years travelling to and from school in Canterbury – admittedly quite a long time ago now - I do not recall a single unpleasant incident involving children who went to different schools. That is in spite of my bus stop being directly across the road from the bus stop used by the secondary modern children. If Ysenda really thinks Kent’s schoolchildren have descended into the 'Lord of the Flies' as a result of selective education that is probably a sign of a sheltered upbringing. She should try visiting a few London comprehensives at chucking-out time.

By contrast, Ysenda seems to see not the slightest problem about the social apartheid which lies between state school children and those who go to private schools. If it is wrong to have emblazered grammar school kids and ‘techies’ in their polo shirts meeting each other about town, then isn’t it at least as big a problem to have kids from the King’s School swanning about Canterbury in their wing collars?

This is the heart of the issue when it comes to Conservative opposition to grammar schools. I don’t know which way Ysenda votes, but virtually all the Conservative opponents to Theresa May’s grammar school plan – Nicky Morgan, George Osborne, and I think we can assume David Cameron, too – attended private schools. And not one of them wants to abolish private education.

But why not? The best, and most repeated argument that the anti-grammar school brigade have is that academic selection deprives other schools of the bright kids that would otherwise help to raise standards. I don’t see what bright kids have done to deserve being treated as teaching aids for the less-able, rather than children who have their own educational needs. But let’s leave that aside. If you are going to advance this argument against grammar schools it leads inexorably to the conclusion that private schools, too, should be banned. Just think, Ysenda, how you could enrich the atmosphere of Kent’s secondary moderns by decanting into them not just grammar school pupils but also pupils from the King’s School.

Yet the Conservative anti-grammar school brigade never quite allows itself to reach this conclusion. On the contrary, remember how Cameron used to go about saying what a ‘great school’ he went to while simultaneously dissing grammar schools.

This rather leads me to a conclusion of my own: that the real motivation of the Tories’ anti-grammar school lobby is to ensure that their own privately-educated children do not have to compete with bright state-educated kids for university places and jobs in the professions. Those professions have become ever more dominated by the privately-educated ever since most grammar schools were abolished.

Yes, I know Cameron’s children are at state primaries, but just you wait now that he is no longer in the political spotlight. If Elwen is not at Eton or another top public school by his 14th birthday, I’ll eat my old school cap.

I want to finish on a political point. Cameron’s anti grammar school stance – dreamed up just after he became leader in an attempt to recreate Tony Blair’s Clause 4 moment – was utterly toxic to the Conservatives. To maintain the ban on grammars while surrounding himself with Etonian advisers opened Cameron and his party to the charge of being the party of wealth and privilege. His contempt for self-made Conservatives – which showed up in other ways, too – was a big driver behind loss of support to Ukip.

Theresa May understands that, which is why she has changed the party’s image so completely. Her support for grammar schools is one of the reasons why she is drawing poll ratings of over 40 per cent – which the Tories have not enjoyed in quarter of a century. Tories who want to take their party back to the paternalism of the Cameron years have been given rather too easy a ride in Conservative-supporting newspapers, which each week bringing another opinion piece drubbing selection. Theresa May will benefit by ignoring Fleet Street’s privately-educated elite and looking to the popular support for grammar schools which has survived years of opposition from the political establishment on the left and right.