The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Tuesday, August 02, 2005
Caught Between Scylla and Charybdis – Should Liberals Support Grammar Schools?
by Steve Travis

The Observer's Nick Cohen returned recently to a familiar theme arguing amongst other things that Grammar Schools were essential to prevent “selection by wealth”, and were killed off by an unthinking conspiracy of Labour former-Public Schoolboys as a move to finish off the competition. Cohen rather over-eggs the conspiracy-theorist pudding with this latter point, but his others bear considered reflection.

As it is, 7% of the school population attend fee-paying schools, a number that is creeping up year on year. And for those who’s “ideology” prevents them from exercising this option, they instead move to “nice” areas with good state schools (for which read produce the kind of A-Level results that means their kids will enter the “better” Universities). For a Liberal, this sort of educational apartheid feels instinctively wrong. Unfortunately, the grammar school alternative lauded by Cohen does not in practice answer this question either. Grammar schools select on ability as measured by the 11-plus examination; like all exams, having the right approach and technique gives you an advantage. You can be sure that middle class kids would be coached extensively to ensure they pass wherever possible. And they would attend the kind of primary schools that would in any case gear themselves to passing this exam, thus ensuring their march up the league tables. This issue is explored in more detail on the BBC Website.

To coin a rather unfortunate phrase, in order to unravel this conundrum we have to "go back to basics" and ask ourselves three questions:

- What is the point of education?
- What emphasis do we give to the potential conflicts between the Liberal tenets of opportunity for all versus choice for all?
- Should we try to get away from one size fits all?

To take the first point, education is first and foremost about allowing a person to fulfil their potential intellectually, socially and physically. A secondary benefit of this is that well informed citizens can contribute to society and live their lives tolerant of the quirks of others. The difficulty is that British society and culture has long had an anti-intellectual streak which is particularly prevalent amongst young males today. Consequently many children are unable to develop their potential as they are forced to conform to the playground norms that deride learning.

On the face of it, then, we have an argument in favour of Grammar Schools as separate institutions as opposed to mere streaming within existing comprehensives. They provide an oasis where the academically-inclined can learn, away from the pressure of the disruptive elements who make teaching a near impossibility in many schools. This also fits well with the concept of diversity, argued for eloquently on a similar-themed topic by Jonathan Calder

This argument is seductive, and does indeed have the potential to help the bright working class children mentioned by both Calder and Cohen. It leaves the nagging presence of those “condemned” to the secondary modern jungle to be addressed, and again part of the answer here is elucidated in Calder’s article by Nichol Stephen – a return to college-based practical education at 14. There are also the further questions to be looked into of social cohesion and practicality. These might both be addressed in the shape of the rural school. In rural communities (and often, given traffic problems, urban ones), choice is simply not an option. Consequently local schools have to be made to work, and in notable examples, given the backing of motivated parents, they do. They have the added advantage of preventing further social dislocation that is already present by virtue of the middle and working classes living and working in different places.

Some comprehensive schools do work well, when given parental support, and when staffed by well trained and motivated teachers. But given the recognition that many fail, the dilemma is whether to offer a lifeboat to some whilst the situation is as it is, or seek to change the system asap (whilst realising this is likely to be a utopian outcome). This was recognised as far back as 1976 by Jim Callaghan

When it’s your children’s future at stake, and the local school does a good impression of Sodom and Gommorrah – what would you do?

It’s not easy being a Liberal …
posted by Apollo Project @ 1:14 pm  
  • At 02 August, 2005 20:42, Blogger James said…

    Your links to the BBC and Jonathan Calder's website don't work.

    As you suggest, there are no easy answers. I would direct you to the same link I posted in Jonathan's comments about allocating schools by lot.

    It would enable individuals to choose their children's schools, but without the corrupt nature of catchment areas and the problems with selection. People wouldn't be able to guarantee their first choice, but then neither would anybody else, so it seem to me to be the least unfair system.

  • At 02 August, 2005 22:42, Anonymous Steve Travis said…

    James - thanks for spotting the links problem. I'll fix them asap. I'm still finding my way round html!

  • At 02 August, 2005 23:04, Blogger Bishop Hill said…

    In my family there is an inverse square relationship between educational achievement and income. Perhaps we should be worrying about those "condemned" to grammar schools.:-)

    I've posted an article with some thoughts on this article on my own site. Unfortunately I went to a comprehensive and so I can't get haloscan and trackback to work. ;-)

  • At 08 August, 2005 21:12, Blogger Snafu said…

    It also depends upon whether you assume all children are academically gifted.

    Not all children can be expected to excel within a Grammar school enviroment. Secondary moderns should be designed to develop other talents and abilities. Children must not be "condemned" for having failing an exam at 11!

  • At 09 August, 2005 09:42, Anonymous Steve Travis said…

    SNAFU - there is much to be said for Butler's original Tripartite system of Grammar, Technical and Sec Mod schools in the sense of offering academice, technical and practical education. Whether you need separate schools to do this is a moot point, but the one about condemning children at 11 is a good one and one I tried to skirt around on Bishop Hill's blog. Offering technical education is something that other European countries seem to manage adequately enough; I suspect that "class" has a big role in this (and is part of the reason why the diploma was killed off).

  • At 13 August, 2005 12:00, Blogger Patrick said…

    Have the Lib Dems discussed the school vouchers as an alternative solution? They are in use in the Netherlands and in some degree also in Sweden, both generally considered to be welfare states, in spite of the fact that due to the school voucher system most of children in the Netherlands attend private schools.

    Now, I don't have proof that the school voucher system would improve learning results. (It might, as the Netherlands has performed quite well in international comparisons, but I don't have access to any reseach about how much these results are due to the school vouchers and private schools.) But what is more important, is that the school vouchers give even the less privileged a choice, which is now possible only for the rich, and thus they should put and end to the "educational apartheid" you referd to.

    I do believe that submiting the schools to competition, when the prise of the education is less of a factor even for the less privileged parents when choosing their children's school, results also improvement of the performance of the schools in general, but as I said, I don't have statistics about that.

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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.


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