I try to ensure that my blog is generally light-hearted, entertaining and apolitical. I strive to avoid causing offence. So it's disconcerting to find myself on the deeply unpopular "wrong" side of the socially-progressive consensus, arguing against organisations such as Reform and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It feels very much like the first time as an adult that somebody told me, to my face, that they didn't like me.
Yet here I am, arguing for the expansion of grammar schools. A policy of a government that I didn't vote for, strongly advocated by a Prime Minister that I don't much care for.
And yes, I have been goaded into setting out my views because of this kind of popular argument:
If grammar schools are so good, how come nobody who attended one can differentiate between personal experience and statistical evidence?— Wu Ming (@twlldun) 7 March 2017
I would say to @twlldun (in rather more than 140 characters):
- Absolutely, I acknowledge that my own singular experience is only an anecdote. I still have the right to talk about it.
- Your comment is an unacceptable generalisation - just as flawed as the poor grasp of statistics that you ridicule.
- You can't extrapolate statistics about a hypothetical future education system from the system that existed in the 1950s.
- Who says that you're asking the right questions of the right people? You could pose a question to a population of grammar school alumni - say, "Was your experience of grammar school a good one?" - and still get meaningful statistical answers. (I don't know whether anybody has ever asked such a question, but it seems likely that that is the implicit question being answered in many such anecdotes.)
- Even within a grammar school education, not everybody is going to end up being great at statistics.
Here's my anecdote, then. I wouldn't be in the position I am today were it not for a grammar education. I wouldn't have been the first in my family to go to university, closely followed by my little sister. My wife and her brother would say the same. As would many of our friends. My parents did not go to university; but they both entered professions as a result of being the most academically gifted in their families and, consequently, attending grammar schools.
Did this contribute to a split along social lines? As it happens, us going to grammar school did not somehow magically destroy our friendships with those that didn't. We stayed in touch with those people we cared about - those with whom we had common interests. Of those that I regret not staying in touch with, a fair number went to other grammars, especially one of the two local girls' grammars.
That's not to say I think my grammar education was perfect. I think a single-sex education, while possibly conducive to academic concentration, had a strongly detrimental social effect on me and many of my peers. More fundamentally, some of my classmates have subsequently made a compelling case that they became complacent in education: that the school failed to enable them to reach their full potential; that it did not add as much value as it could have. There is some evidence for this: at the time of my attendance, my school was found to be the "best value for money" state school in the country. This means that it spent less for every high GCSE or A-Level grade than any other. You could take this to mean that the school's high achievement was despite, not because of, high educational standards.
Still, I think I would have rapidly foundered in a comp. Bookish, nerdy, resolutely uninterested in sport, and introverted: I think I would have been bullied, that I would have been easily bored in lessons, and that I would eventually have retreated into myself. I'm not sure about any of these hypotheticals, but I believe them. Around the ages of 11 or 12, I was twice attacked by older kids from local comps because of the uniform I wore. I quickly came to see that my school was, relatively speaking, a haven of bright pupils whose most significant common factor was that they all had a healthy respect for school and for learning. I agree that they weren't an especially diverse bunch, but then, I'm not sure that their backgrounds differed significantly from those friends I had at primary school.
I am aware of the main arguments against selective education. It doesn't increase social mobility as much as it should. Only a tiny elite get to attend. It leaves behind bright pupils whose potential has been overlooked. Overall attainment decreases. It places too much emphasis on the outcome of a single test, when we all develop at a different rate. Richer students are more likely to succeed because they can afford private tuition. I believe that all of these problems can be overcome with a well-designed grammar system. Indeed, the Government appears to be doing exactly that in its consultations.
Social mobility can be addressed either through quotas (though these are fraught with difficulties); or, as the Government proposes, by having the school actively involved in under-privileged feeder schools. The argument that an insufficient proportion of students are eligible to attend a grammar school can be addressed by providing more places, i.e. by expanding grammar schools. And there's no particular reason why there has to be only a single point of entry. My school accepted entrants at 11, 13, 16 and at other points in between.
Overall attainment in a selective educational area decreases only because the quality of other schools is so low. That is not inherent in a selective education system, although it might well have been in the past. Idealistically, we should aim to improve all schools - catering to all needs. There is no need for us to choose between grammar schools on the one hand, and raising standards at comprehensives on the other. There are even proposed mechanisms for ensuring that this happens within a finite budget, such as mandating that the grammar is part of a multi-school trust. And we can be smarter about how we measure success, too, recognising that a student's lower academic ability does not equate to failure.
The problem of a single entrance exam, and the possibility of richer students being coached to pass, can both be overcome by use of different entrance criteria. In fact, I believe that the problem has already been solved once before. At the time of my own 11-plus exam, teachers told my parents that the procedure was roughly this: the school marked coursework for students over a period of years, identifying the most able. The exam was then used to benchmark schools against one another. Finally, the highest-ranked pupils from each school were selected. My parents were told - twice, a few years apart - that both my sister and I could have missed the exam entirely and still be certain of a place at grammar school. Coaching would have made no difference either way. I am very surprised that this approach is not documented anywhere. I can't believe that the teachers lied to my parents, especially when the mechanism that they described makes more sense than the current one-shot test.
Why do I support the expansion of grammar schools? Because I believe that it would be unconscionable for me to argue against a system from which I have personally benefited so substantially. Just as I benefited from a free university education, and hence disagree with the principle of exorbitant tuition fees; and just as I have benefited from the NHS, and therefore support that organisation (despite its obvious flaws). Let me repeat: I understand that my grammar education was an opportunity and a privilege, and notwithstanding all arguments to the contrary, it would be unethical for me to want to deny the same privilege to others.
It is widely reported that the current younger generation is the first in decades to be worse off than their parents. The generation now approaching retirement have systematically pulled up the drawbridges behind them, cutting off younger people from the decades of social progress from which they prospered. I think we owe it to the younger generation to reverse this and open up opportunities for them; to give gifted children from less well-off backgrounds a genuine chance to succeed. Equality of opportunity does not mean that we have to place the most gifted students in the same classroom as the less able, and those who simply don't want to learn; but that we strive to design an education system that benefits all according to their unique needs.
The selective system is not without its flaws, but it is better to fix those flaws than to resign ourselves to a mediocre average.