As The Times reported a few months ago, UKIP is putting the widening of access to grammar schools at the forefront of its education policy:

UKIP is planning to make an expansion of grammar schools a pillar of next May’s local elections.

It will argue that it wants to end “selection by house price”, where richer parents are able to buy properties by good schools. It will also warn that it is “only UKIP that stands up for everybody’s chance to be educated to the best of their ability”…

Michael Heaver put it even more succinctly in his Telegraph blog

“it is time we carried out the nationwide education revolution that parents are patently clamouring for. A grammar school in every town and city seems to be what parents want – and is certainly what our kids deserve.”

As an experienced secondary teacher for nearly forty years (comprehensive and secondary modern schools) I don’t take issue with that idea of a grammar school in every town. Over my working years I became increasingly convinced that the brightest children, especially those from lower income families, would benefit from an educational environment that openly lauded intellectual achievement – something that is far more difficult (but not impossible) to implement in a comprehensive atmosphere embracing a wider range of abilities.

However, as an old grammar school boy myself, and as an historian, I do have reservations about the traditional model of the grammar school and its impact on the whole structure of secondary education. I would need a lot of convincing before giving my wholehearted support to a programme of expansion.

Firstly it should be remembered that grammar schools offering a free education (directly or indirectly supported by state funding) and openly accessible to eleven year olds by competition, really only came into being as a result of the 1944 Education Act. It was this ground breaking piece of legislation which opened up secondary education for all.

The actual plan was to set up a tripartite system of grammar schools for the academically able, secondary technical schools for those pupils with technical ability and secondary modern schools to give a basic general education for those children who would become unskilled or semi skilled workers.

Unfortunately, mainly through lack of funding and a shortage of suitable teachers very few technical schools were set up and, for most areas the choice was between the local grammar and a clutch of former elementary schools, now relabelled secondary modern.  Places were allocated by a test at age eleven and those who “passed” went to grammar school, those who “failed” went to secondary moderns. Despite frequent attempts to colour secondary moderns in a more positive light – and some dedicated teachers did manage to achieve a great deal – the fact that the vast majority of their pupils left at 15 with no paper qualifications reinforced the idea that 85-90% of English youngsters were let loose on the world of work as educational “failures”

I began my teaching career in a small secondary modern school in South London in the early 60s and we battled constantly against the general feeling of pointlessness with which the older pupils and their parents regarded the daily routine. Most of the parents, who had left school at 14 and went straight out to work, felt the extra year added by raising the school leaving age to 15 was a waste of time and their children often picked up on this. Indeed, truth to tell, in the local markets and shops and workshops there was plenty of work available for those who left as soon as possible. Why waste time studying with no income when a week’s work at the market would fill your pockets with cash.

It was mainly a desire to try to break this cycle of “failure” and its consequent devaluing of education that drove the campaign to abolish grammar schools. The model was, of course, the American High School, a prized local institution that catered for all levels of ability. Many of America’s high achievers had come from poor families and their community’s high school had offered them a pathway out of poverty. England’s new Comprehensive schools would hopefully do the same.

Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way. Unlike American high schools which often had served three or even four generations of local families the new comprehensives were frequently cobbled together from the staff and pupils of the local grammar and several secondary moderns and often on split sites. After a few years it became fashionable to build a new school on a greenfield site – and these schools were huge, often serving 1000+ pupils using the long established industrial assumption that big was better because economies of scale would actually lower staff and pupil costs.

By the early 1980s it was being realised that the new comprehensives, though publicly genuflecting to the notion of every pupil valued, whatever their ability, were actually neglecting the secondary modern rump.

“Sir Keith (now Lord) Joseph – came to understand why the teaching profession was almost unanimous in favouring change. O-level, though valued and understood by parents, employers and universities, was a highly academic exam designed only for the top 25 per cent of children. The CSE had been created in the mid-1960s for children of average ability but, Sexton says, ‘it never really took off – employers didn’t think it was worth anything’. Further, there was no exam at all designed for the bottom 40 per cent of children.”

Within schools this was proving a major concern for teachers. The school leaving age had been raised to 16 during the ‘70s and trying to occupy the interests of these so-called non academic pupils was proving an extremely difficult task.

So the Thatcher government adopted the previous Labour government’s proposal for a new exam, GCSE, designed to accommodate all levels of ability. Furthermore an intensive regime of evaluation through tests and assessment meant that English secondary pupils became the most assessed in the world and we fell into the trap of assuming that if something couldn’t be measured it was not worthwhile. Education came to be ruled by statistics and these in turn led to “the league table” effect in which, generally, (though there were exceptions) – surprise, surprise – schools in the leafier suburbs did better than those in the inner cities and fringe estates.

Those of us familiar with the Soviet Union were able to predict the outcome of any statistically driven regime. Within the schools there was a veritable explosion of pupils taking “soft” GCSE options in order to pile up a portfolio of “passes”. Outside the schools there developed an unspoken conspiracy between exam boards and government ministers to make exams easier to pass so that every August it could be claimed that in the early years of the 21st century British youngsters were leaving school better educated than any previous generation.

Moreover, nearly half the school population was to be carrying forward into a higher level of education provided by scores, nay hundreds of “universities” which would award “degrees” across a huge range of subjects transforming Britain into a nation of graduates…

The overall impact of all this has been, of course, catastrophic in the extreme. A prescriptive curriculum and over emphasis on quantifiable outcomes has not left much room for imagination, flair and experiment. Those children who appear to be more able to adapt to an academic approach tend to be “taught to the test” along a recognised pathway with little opportunity to explore those tangents and branching trails that can make learning so exciting and stimulating. The less academically inclined are rarely challenged intellectually and remain, despite leaving with clutches of paper, worryingly similar to the secondary modern rump that gave Sir Keith Joseph such concern nearly thirty years ago. However, the vast reservoir of unskilled/semi skilled jobs that quickly absorbed early school leavers in the greater part of the twentieth century no longer exists. So successive governments have greatly expanded 16-18 education, once the preserve of the “academic”, into an opportunity for all. To what extent this has been done successfully is very much open to question.

Parents are obviously concerned – so concerned that many (not all of them particularly wealthy) are voting with their feet and going private. The expansion of fee paying secondary education over the last three decades has been phenomenal. This in itself is a massive indictment of our school system because in almost every other western society most children from better off families would automatically attend the local state school.

So we do need a radical transformation of our system of secondary education and an increased number of grammar schools would be an important first step. But that in itself would not be sufficient. Two important questions need to be asked and answered before any changes are made. Firstly what are grammar schools for and what sort of education should they provide? Even more important, perhaps, what would be the nature of education that we would offer to the majority of our children who would not be attending grammar schools? Those questions were never really seriously considered during the three decades following the 1944 Act which is why most grammar schools were eventually closed. But they do need to be answered by UKIP if we wish to be taken seriously as a political party which aspires to government – and I’ll attempt to address those issues in the second part of this article.

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