Want to make a real difference? Forget faith schools, go after the grammars

By David GreenBad Grammar / @davegreen

I’ve just read Tom Copley’s article about faith schools, and fear he may be missing the elephant in the British education system’s living room.

Although it’s contained in quite a lot of unhelpful hyperbole, there is a grain of truth in what Tom says about the questionable quality of sex education and social values that come through failth schools (although, in fairness to these schools, I’ve never heard a left-wing commentator do justice to the corrolary in many faith schools, which is the sterling work they do on poverty and community work).

Nevertheless, I don’t think that faith schools should be the primary aim for reform. Grammar schools, the antithesis of equality, opportunity and social progress, are still with us more than 40 years after that sensible comrade Tony Crosland vowed to “destroy every f*cking grammar school in the country”.

There are still 164 state grammars in England – with some counties being wholly selective, and others retaining a single grammar in an otherwise comprehensive system – and the whole of Northern Ireland retains a segregated educational system.

I shouldn’t have to persuade most Labour people of the malign influence grammar schools have on education. They make an arbitrary division, largely on the basis of a small and subjective subset of children’s abilities, and then tramline their educations (and, thus, their life chances) according to this for the rest of their lives.

This apartheid system is not only detrimental to education, especially for those who are placed in secondary moderns – they lose the chance to be taught by and alongside the teachers and pupils at the grammar school – but also to social relations, and the myriad other ways in which children learn at school that are not tought and examined in classrooms and exams.

Proponents of the grammar system will tell you that the quality of education received is better. This is questionable when said of grammar schools (by and large, the academic evidence suggests that bright pupils do just as well in mixed-ability groups as they do when they are streamed or separated from their peers), and a downright lie when said of secondary moderns.

They will also say that they provide a means by which intelligent poor children can better themselves. I make no apology for disagreeing. Quite apart from the fact that grammar schools overwhelmingly benefited the middle classes when the selective system reigned (and still do where they persist), but as a socialist, why should I think my job is to provide merely for bright children?

All children matter, and all deserve the chance to reach whatever potential they have, whether it’s the difference between working in a call centre and being a brain surgeon, or working in a call centre and being unemployable. If – as you’d expect – itelligence, aptitude and ability are distributed normally in the population (i.e. in a bell curve), a true egalitarian would call for provision to be directed towards the majority who are of average ability.

In fact, if there are questions about the efficient distribution of scarce resources in teaching, there’s also a strong argument for disproportionately directing them towards those with low ability, for whom the difference made by education may well be of an immense magnitude.

What’s more, this is only taking account of the difference education makes to employment opportunities. When you factor in the more nebulous gains from education, the problems with a differentiated curriculum are starker still. I cannot think why being born with a few extra points of IQ, or the ability to do better at written exams, qualifies you to be more deserving of the improving influence of appreciating art, music, literature, or the fascinations of science, mathematics and the humanities.

Comprehensive education has not been an unqualified success in Britain since the 1960s, but it has a great deal more to say for it than the failed experiment with separation. In fact, more could be done for the state of the nation’s education system by making our system more genuinely comprehensive, not less.

The influence that grammar schools, and the selection “by aptitude” of a proportion of their intake by the government’s wrong-headed academy scheme, make more material difference to children’s lives than do the marginal problems with faith schools. If, as Bevan said, “the language of priorities is the religion of socialism”, we need to realise that our priority in education is not religion.

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