Monday, July 12, 2010

Allan Peachey: Ideology Undermines Education

Just how socialist has schooling become? Ask the fools who abolished grammar schools in England. Fools you say, which fools? Well, start with the Harold Wilson Labour Government of the 1960s; go to the Heath Conservative Government of the 1970s (in which Margaret Thatcher no less was Education Secretary) and right up to current British Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, who said in 2007 that he would not lead any calls to “bring back grammars”. He argued that a selective system concentrating talent in a few schools would not raise standards across the board or promote social equality. Now how socialist is that, coming from an old Etonian no less?

There were once over 1,000 grammar schools in the United Kingdom but following efforts of two governments that number is now 160, concentrated in Kent, Buckinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Northern Ireland. The closures started during the 1960s and when she was Education Secretary in the early 1970s Margaret Thatcher closed down more grammar schools than any other minister, before or since. Forgive me if I am wrong, but didn’t Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a small grocer, go to a grammar school? And here lies the problem; excellence in schooling is ridiculed by hypocrisy in politicians. There was media controversy when it was revealed that a senior Minister in the Blair Government, Harriet Harman (who ended up as Deputy Prime Minister to Gordon Brown) decided to send her son to one of the surviving grammar schools. Indeed the “Economist” reported in 2000 that twelve members of the Blair cabinet had benefited from a grammar school education.

I use these examples to make a point. Too many decisions are made around schooling for ideological reasons, not for the right reasons.

The modern history around grammar schools is instructive. The 1944 Education Act in the United Kingdom reorganised secondary schooling into two types of schools:

1) Grammar schools, which focused on academic studies and the expectation that most grammar school students would go on to university;

2) Secondary modern schools, which were to educate children going into trades, and so concentrated on basic and vocational skills.

Incidentally the 1944 Act also proposed a third type of secondary school, the technical school, but few were ever built.

At the age of 11 children were examined by what was known as the “11 Plus”. It was an exam that I remember well, having sat it myself at the age of 10 at the British Army Children’s School in Ipoh, Malaya, while my father was serving in the New Zealand Army during the Malayan Emergency. Pass it and you went to grammar school, fail it and it was off to a secondary modern.

It didn’t take long for the forerunners of the politically correct brigade to start arguing that the “11 Plus” branded children as failures at a young age. My argument in reply to that would have been that if there was a failure, it was the failure of secondary modern schools to do what they were set up to do. The left was also soon arguing that grammar schools reinforced class division. And yet I think of all the British people that I have met over my working life who boast about having got a grammar school education despite their humble beginnings in life. What the “11 Plus” exam did was open up grammar schools to children who were suited to an academic education, regardless of the backgrounds of their parents. And there was another aspect to this which should embarrass those so quick to get rid of grammar schools. Bright children from poorer communities got better schooling opportunities because entry into grammar school was based solely on academic ability, rather than on a geographic catchment area. The result of this was a good mix of children from across geographic, social and economic boundaries. Far from accentuating class division the grammar schools were an important vehicle of social mobility.

Anyway, most grammar and secondary modern schools were abolished through the 1960s and 1970s, to be replaced with comprehensive schools, which came to be known as “bog standard comprehensives”. Harold Wilson, Prime Minister when the first new comprehensives replaced closed down grammar and secondary modern schools, claimed that “all schools would be as good as grammar schools”. That never happened. It was never going to happen for a very simple reason; the solution to dealing with underperforming secondary modern schools was never the abolition of grammar schools. Yet that is what successive British governments did. They got rid of the jewel in their schooling crown rather than confront the inadequacies of the secondary modern schools.

They got rid of the grammar schools not on the grounds of their educational performance, but on the grounds of ideology. When all of the elements of that ideology are worked through it comes down to a simple belief that equality of opportunity requires all children to have the same type of education, in the one type of school. What nonsense!

Selection on the basis of ability to benefit from a particular type of schooling does not discriminate against anybody. Selection on the basis of where a youngster lives does.


Jack Butland said...

An outstanding analysis by Allan Peachey. it seems to be happening here also. Private Schools have only ever received a pittance from the Govt in spite of the very high standards they achieve. Now many Private Schools operate as Public Schools because they have received Govt Funding.

John Ansell said...

A good article. But has it not been overtaken by events?

I thought the big story in Britain was the Tories' adoption of the Swedish free school model, where the government will fund competent teachers and parents to set up new private schools.

This sounds very similar to ACT's scholarship policy. I'd be interested to know what Allan Peachey makes of that.

Muriel Newman said...

Sadly, Allan passed away in November 2011.