Grammar schools can destroy the class system
Graham Brady MP
People from ordinary backgrounds will benefit most if selective education expands again
Last week’s first Conservative budget for nearly 20 years will help to secure Britain’s economic future and create a society that rewards enterprise and aspiration. This question of how we offer opportunities for everyone got me involved in politics. For Conservatives, fairness isn’t about building an ever bigger web of welfare dependency — it is about how we help people to build a future for themselves. This has been the moral force behind Iain Duncan Smith’s determination to ensure that people moving from welfare into work are always better off. It has been the aim of measures to help young Britons buy their own home.
At the very heart of this opportunity society is education — the sacred mission to equip every young person with the knowledge and skills they will need to find fulfilment. For some this might be learning to rewire a house; it might be training to perform a heart transplant; it might be studying Bronze Age pottery. A civilised society needs — and should value — them all. This is why the drive to restore rigour to our schools fits perfectly alongside the massive expansion of apprenticeships. It is why governments of all stripes over the past thirty years have recognised that schools should be allowed a specialism: from maths and computing to modern languages. It is why Lord Baker’s University Technical Colleges strike a chord with so many of us, too.
There remains however a nagging doubt, something that is missing. Thirty years of intervention — grant maintained schools, “education, education, education”, academies and free schools — may have raised standards but they have failed to widen opportunity.
Our country is too bogged down in class and privilege. Where you come from in life still plays far too big a part in where you will end up. Most of the best state comprehensives have replaced selection on merit with selection by house price. The 7 per cent who go to independent schools take a disproportionate share of places at our best universities. The most influential (and often, most lucrative) professions recruit largely from these elite colleges and the pool they recruit from is just too narrow.
Leonard Cohen might tell you “the poor stay poor, the rich get rich / that’s how it goes” but the fact is that for once it really wasn’t ever thus.
It is widely accepted that a golden age of opportunity in the 1950s and 1960s saw pupils from state grammars and direct grant schools storm the bastions of privilege. The public schools lost their grip on the upper reaches of the civil service, the judiciary and the professions. Even the BBC had to make room for talented grammar school graduates such as John Humphrys and Joan Bakewell. A new meritocratic age had dawned but then, as Boris Johnson told this paper on Saturday, the canals of social mobility were allowed to freeze over.
If all state grammar schools had been swept away by the mindless egalitarianism of the Sixties, all this might be dismissed as a historical anomaly. Fortunately some parts of England (and the whole of Northern Ireland) had the wisdom to resist the destruction of great schools.
I was four when my parents moved from Salford to Altrincham. They didn’t move for the schools but for me it was probably my luckiest break.
Now I am the MP for my home town and this part of Greater Manchester has probably the best state schools in the country — not just the grammar schools but high schools that routinely outperform all-ability comprehensives elsewhere.
Recent research showed that Trafford is the only area in the north or Midlands in the top 20 for getting state school pupils into elite Russell Group universities.
Wherever grammar schools exist they are hugely popular but a crazy antisocial mobility law introduced by Tony Blair prohibits new grammar schools. A Conservative government that champions parental choice should scrap this law.
In the meantime, existing grammar schools are allowed to expand and this can include growth into another site which may be a few miles away. The first test case is a proposed new location in Sevenoaks. Parents want it and hundreds of children currently having to be bussed to other parts of Kent are crying out for it. Now that there are no Liberal Democrat ministers squatting in her department, the education secretary should approve this without delay.
It would amount to a small but important step away from a country where the top jobs go to people whose parents can pay for their education and towards a society of true opportunity and aspiration.
Graham Brady is chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory MPs