Tuesday, 22 May 2007

The grammar of dissent

The Conservatives are having a mini 'Clause 4 moment' over grammar schools. Shuggy and Oliver Kamm have both deconstructed the arguments of the Tory old guard who want to hold on to selection. Kamm de-couples grammars from arguments about 'choice', with a reminder that under a selective system it's schools that do the choosing, not parents or pupils, while Shuggy deconstructs opinion polls that claim to show grammars' continuing popularity:

Like all opinion polls, it depends on how you frame the question. Perhaps they could try asking, "Would you like to see three secondary moderns established in every town?" and if this were coupled with the understanding that their children had a good chance of ending up in one of them - I suspect the results might be a little different.

There was an excellent Radio 4 series on the history of comprehensive education some months ago, and it contained a salutary reminder from a Tory MP that much of the pressure to end selection came from middle-class Conservative-voting parents, not quite rich enough to afford private education, who were scared stiff their offspring would end up in secondary moderns.

Having said all that, I don't think Labour has any grounds for complacency. I've mentioned before that I dislike the current government's emphasis on choice and specialisation at secondary level, not to mention its dalliance with private funding, which in some cases has meant putting state education into the hands of creationist zealots. I'm with Fiona Millar and the Compass people in wanting a Labour policy that puts its energies into creating what most parents really want: a high quality, genuinely comprehensive school in every community.

My sense is that we're as far from that goal as we were 10 years ago, despite all the city academies and specialist colleges. Growing up in the '60s, in a working/lower-middle-class home, I was fortunate enough to pass the 11 plus and go to the local grammar school, where an inspirational teacher pushed me into applying to university and then supported me through Cambridge entrance exams. As a democratic socialist I don't want to see a return to selection, but I would like to see the opportunities that were available to me extended to all children, whatever their background. Speaking as a parent of two children currently in the secondary system, I'm not at all confident that's happening.

I know the statistics tell a different story, and that more young people, from a greater variety of social backgrounds, are going on to higher education than in the past. But anecdotally I hear that the intake at Oxford and Cambridge colleges is increasingly middle-class, the product of private schools and the remaining grammars (and Cameron is right, these are mostly the preserve of the middle class these days), with my own generation of working-class Oxbridge students now looking like an atypical blip in the centuries-long tradition of educating the privileged.

We live in a fairly comfortable corner of eastern England, but even here I've been surprised at the low-to-middling aspirations of our local schools for their pupils. The single-sex former grammars attended by my son and daughter are better than many, but the co-ed former secondary modern that takes most of the children from the poorest estates seems depressingly focused on providing vocational skills and inculcating good behaviour: not much sense there of the comprehensive dream that you can do or be anything, whatever your start in life.

It wasn't long ago that the Tory election manifesto promised 'a grammar in every town'. In fact, this was a perversion of the dream of the original comprehensive pioneers, whose vision was a grammar school education for every child who wanted it. As more and more middle class parents take their children off into private education, and government pursues its misguided and divisive agenda of 'choice', I fear we're still a long way from achieving that radical vision.

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