Saturday, 10 September 2016

Is it safe to watch TV news again? I had to switch off because of all those middle-aged blonde women getting shrieky about grammar schools!

One of the benefits of one's offspring finishing university and entering the wonderful world of paid employment is that you no longer have to pay any attention to news stories about education. Private school fees going through the roof? GCSE grades plummeting? Teachers striking because 14 weeks paid leave just isn't enough? University tuition fees heading for outer space? Your kid's arts degree won't get them a decent job? Meh. 

Been there, done that, and still occasionally wake up sweating in the middle of the night remembering the sheer gut-churning awfulness of it all. Our particular offspring has a good, interesting job in a fast-expanding business sector, working in an extremely trendy part of London, so, as far as education goes, we are "past the tyrant's stroke" (or, in the spirit of the "Red Flag" parody: "The working class can kiss my arse/I've got the foreman's job at last").

But the brouhaha resulting from Theresa May's plans to champion grammar schools has been hard to ignore, because every time I've switched on the news in the last couple of days I've been confronted by yet another seriously upset blonde representative of the Education Blob spitting tacks in an absolute frenzy of compassionate hatred at the thought that bright state school pupils might end up receiving a better education than the current system seems capable of providing for them. At first, I thought it was the same woman running between studios, but subtle differences in accent, coiffure and rage level persuaded me that there was in fact a whole army of former or current teachers, headteachers, bureaucrats, union leaders and shadowy "advisers" launching an assault on all media fronts at the same time. I half expected one of them to pop up on screen when I finally threw in the sponge and switched over to Fox News (where I can't linger long these days because I can only take so much Hillary/Trump coverage before running out of the room screaming "We're doomed! We're all doomed!")

I have no particularly strong feelings about grammar schools - except that, if there had been one in our area, we might have saved a shedload of money in school fees. Some of my friends who are old enough to have attended old-fashioned secondary modern schools (where you ended up if you didn't pass your 11 Plus exam) report that it did them no harm - others tell me it was a ghastly experience. Which, of course, is the same range of response you get from those who attended comprehensives. I remember one achingly liberal former Holland Park Comprehensive attendee telling me that it was a bit hard to take in information when half the class was determined to disrupt every lesson, led by one boy who was evidently a violent psychopath - but, then, the young man who told me this got into Cambridge: others not only flourished academically, but enjoyed the experience. The phrase "postcode lottery" comes to mind.

One of the things which convinces me that grammar schools are probably A Good Thing is the immense effort made by left-wing parents who happen to live in areas where grammar schools exist to get their kids into them - just as many Labour-voting middle-class types manage to bravely overcome their egalitarian instincts when Jocasta or Harry turn 11, and immediately hire tutors so their little darlings can get into one of those horribly unfair and divisive private schools. Jocasta, you see, is "dyslexic" and needs special tuition, and Harry is jolly keen on rowing, which the local comp doesn't offer. Once Jocasta and Harrykins are safely ensconced in an elite, fee-paying academy, their leftie parents promptly begin lecturing the rest of us on how they wouldn't have needed to betray their political principles if  "the Tories" had been willing to spend more on state schools. Pass the sick-bag, Alice, as Sir John Junor used to remark.

Another sound reason for supporting grammar schools is that - much like Brexit - almost the whole of the media, political, academic and education establishments are against them. David Cameron (Eton, Brasenose) - the man who classed the legalising of gay marriage as one of his finest achievements -thinks that the debate about getting the most suitable education for one's children is "pointless" and "sterile". Inevitably, the ridiculous former Tory Education Secretary, Nicki Morgan (private school, Oxford) agrees. And the whole of the Labour Party - even the ones who send their kids to private school, or, as in the case of Corbyn's Stalinist press secretary, Seumas Milne, send them to grammar schools!

They're all indulging in zero-sum thinking, which - along with sentimentality - is one of the greatest evils of our age. Zero-sum thinking assumes that there's a finite amount of everything, and that, if someone has a large slice of a particular pie, it means someone else making do with a mere sliver: if you make the greedy bastard's slice smaller, the victim with the sliver will automatically have more pie. Simples! Similarly, if a state school pupil gets the chance to attend an academically selective state school, a pupil who isn't offered the same opportunity will automatically receive a worse education than they would have done if Little Miss Smarty-Pants had been forced to stay at her bog-standard comp. Only socialists - and their lukewarm fellow-travellers on the Centre Right - have failed to notice that capitalism disproved this nonsense centuries ago.

Another reason for supporting the expansion of grammar schools is the escalating cost of sending a child to private school. Undoubtedly, the prospect of middle-middle class people sending their kids to private schools is dwindling: here in London, it would cost you at least  £15,000 a year per child, without the inevitable extras. That means £25,000 per year of untaxed income: two kids means £50,000 of untaxed income. Wind the clock back 22 years, and I'd be incredibly bloody keen on seeing a grammar school in our area. (One of the problems with Mrs. May's proposal to deny grammar school places to pupils from middle-income, middle-class households in favour of the "disadvantaged" is that the squeezed middle get squeezed yet again - I'm beginning to suspect nobody likes us.)

The only minor wrinkle for the status quo-hugging establishment over this issue is that - again, as with Brexit - the voters seem not to share the enthusiasm of the great and the good for one-size-fits-all education. According to a Sky News snap poll, 60% want more grammar schools, while a mere 27% definitely don't. I suggest the angry, finger-wagging, "we know what's best for you!" women stay off our TV screens for a bit, because The Blob's version of Project Fear appears to be working just about as well as the Brexit original.


  1. It seems like only yesterday that David Cameron said "no more grammar schools" but actually it was May 2007 when Mr Cameron told Conservative supporters that they were "delusional" and to stop wasting his time, please see 'If today's newspapers are victory I'd hate to see defeat'.

    1. Yes, just as delusional as all those Conservative supporters who thought it might be possible to win a referendum to leave the EU. Politicians from the best private and grammar schools schools demonstrate a peculiarly tin ear when it comes to this issue.

  2. The education offered by a grammar school is not suitable to all. Not all children have the same interests and needs.

    Surely it is time to raise the status of technical education for those whose talents lie in that direction. I understand we can lay the snobbish attitude towards science, craft and technical subjects such as engineering at the feet of the 19th century public schools.

    And yet, in the 19th century, where would we have been without Stephenson, Brunel, Faraday, Morris, Bazalgette and so on?

    Surely it is better to raise the status of a technical education rather than to keep indignating about elitism, which, if a grammar school education was obligatory for all, would result in many square pegs being forced into round holes.