THE grammar-school debate should not be about grammar schools, but about secondary modern schools, or whatever they end up being called, because selection works both ways. Few parents will object to the selection of their child for superior teaching and brighter peers. The parents whose child fails the 11-plus (for, in spite of attempts to be positive, the language of “pass” and “fail” has always been present) will perhaps regard the Government’s proposed expansion of grammar schools with less enthusiasm. It is a fantasy to believe that the benefits of selection can be had without its darker side: the arbitrary age at which selection is made, notwithstanding the promise of transfer at 14 or 16 (how many places for late developers will there be?); the gravitation of better teachers to the grammars; the concentration of pupils with learning or behaviour difficulties into fewer schools; the separation of siblings and friends on intellectual grounds — these are harmful aspects of selection which few of those now deciding education policy will have experienced when they were growing up.
Among the many objections to the new proposals is that they appear to be another education policy driven by political ideology. This was not a manifesto promise whose popularity swept the party into power. There has not been a clamouring for yet another fundamental change in a system that remains punch-drunk after the combination of revolution and tinkering which characterised Michael Gove’s period as Education Secretary. The academy reforms have not reached maturity; free schools are still being built; independent schools are in the process of responding to the challenge to integrate more generously with their community; the examination system is still not right; the student-loans arrangement remains iniquitous — there are many reasons for a moratorium on further change.
There will always be grounds for changing a system that cannot escape the inequality of society. When it was general, selection gave social mobility to some, but not all: technical schools were popular but too few; secondary-modern pupils faced at 11 a ceiling on expectations, and, as reported in the 1960s, a higher incidence of corporal punishment. Since grammar schools became scarce, and usually more elite, parents with greater resources have paid for (or given) 11-plus coaching. Verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests have been used to mitigate the effects, but preparation can still affect results.
Good teachers can inspire and educate children regardless of background. Schools — even, to a limited extent, independent schools — work hard to level out social inequality between pupils, while matching educational demands to ability. It is an imprecise science, made harder by the struggle with novelties imposed from on high and the old perennials of class size and social deprivation. Placing an elite in a different establishment will make this impossible. Conservatives who share these misgivings will need to make their voices heard in the consultation.