I thought I might just talk for five minutes today about
Theresa May’s surprise announcement last week that she was planning to bring
back Grammar Schools. There is a good
chance that you are sitting here not really knowing what a Grammar School is or
understanding why there is such fuss about this in the press. So before an assessment of the merits of this
new/old development, here is a brief, non-biased, summary…
The history is this.
The Butler Act of 1944 dictated that the UK State-run Education system
would be tripartite. At 11, you could
either join a Grammar School, which was academically selective via the 11+
exam, a technical school (which concentrated on the skills to serve industry
and science) or a secondary modern. The
idea was that those who could prove themselves academically able at the age of
11 would all be gathered together and taught under the same roof, so that they
could progress at a speed suitable to their needs. The grammar system would help to provide the
leaders of tomorrow.
The Labour Government of the 1960s decided, not
unreasonably, that the system was unfair.
The technical schools had barely got off the ground, and the existence
of selective Grammar Schools drained intelligent children away from the
Secondary moderns, and consigned, it seemed, generations to failure at a very
young age. They decided to abolish
Grammar Schools and the non-selective Comprehensive School became the norm for
state education. Just a handful of
selective state Grammar Schools, survive today, notably in Buckinghamshire and
The Prime Minister has personal and political reasons for
trying to reinstate selective Grammar Schools.
On a personal level, she attended one herself and she attributes her own
success to the excellent school she attended.
On a political level, she has sought to distance herself from David
Cameron’s public school educated inner circle, but still wishes to promote
excellence in education. But the button
she is really pushing is the need for greater social mobility in the UK – to
give children from poorer backgrounds a better chance of success in a country
dominated by wealth and class divisions.
There are few people who would deny that greater social
mobility is a laudable aim. It is
patently unfair that if you are born into poverty, then it is almost impossible
to get out of it; and if you are born rich, then doors open all over the place.
I have two questions and no answers for you today. I’d like some answers from you.
The first question is this: can Grammar Schools work as a vehicle for social mobility?
Those who say yes point to the success of people like
Theresa May; she was given a chance by a selective free education to work
alongside like-minded intelligent pupils and develop an intellectual curiosity
leading to her position today.
They also point to the apparent absurdity of the Labour
Government in the 1960s, who, in striving for fairness, decided to get rid of
the good schools rather than eliminate poor ones.
They will also talk about opportunity. It may only be for a selected few, but at
least it is there.
On the other side of the fence are those who say that it is
desperately unfair to base such a seemingly critical selection on a single exam
at 11 years old. Theresa May seems to
have answered this by allowing selection at other ages too, to pick up the late
developers; nevertheless, aspiration in the non-selective comprehensives seems
almost certain to drop with far fewer bright children in class. Few people seem to be arguing for the return
of secondary moderns.
The opposition will also point to the fact that Grammar
Schools then, and those left now, have not done much for social mobility. In
fact, only 3% of today’s grammar school children receive free school meals from
the government on account of their poverty, whereas 18% of the children across
their boroughs receive the same. I have
taught in a Grammar School area in Kent and I asked the Head of the local girls
grammar about this – she admitted that 85% of her children had come from the
local independent prep schools.
Lastly, as Lord Blunkett claims, the current system is
beginning to work; it needs time, not radical change. The academisation of the state sector and the
introduction of free schools gives more freedom to schools, choice for parents
and more ambition for all. The
independent sector is doing far more to collaborate with the state sector than
ever before; and this seems a great step forward too, for both sectors.
So what do you think?
Is bringing back selective state education better for social mobility,
My second question is this. How can we
help social mobility here? I said last
week again that with privilege comes responsibility and I mean this. So how can we demonstrate a desire to be
responsible? What can we do as a school to knock down class barriers? How might we be able to share success?
Interestingly, the history of our school, like almost all
other schools of this type, is that it was set up by a great benefactor (in our
case William Harpur) for the poor children of Bedford. This fee-paying school is the product of that
initial vision. There is perhaps even more
of a moral responsibility upon us then that we may have considered. The defenders and the current benefactors of
these sorts of schools point to their success in creating the leaders of
tomorrow. The Sutton Trust did some
research on social mobility in 2012. It
researched the backgrounds of the 8000 most successful people in the UK, across
a range of fields, to see which schools they attended – Bedford School came 32nd
on the list, which is a pretty amazing statistic when you think about just how
many schools there are in the country.
Almost all of the others were independent schools.
I think therefore that the way we can help social mobility most is by assuming that you will be
leading in the future. Your attitudes
therefore, are the key. Will you be
leading by protecting your own positions in society; or will you be open
minded, fair and inclusive to all?
I’d be very interested in hearing from you in this
topic? How can we as a school do our bit
to promote social mobility in the UK?
Please email me or come to see me.