Monday, May 21, 2007

Grammars, again

I was going to post a response in the comments, but I thought this was important enough to have another post. Ultimately, whether grammar schools are the answer depends on what the question is. Grammar schools undeniably provide an excellent quality of education. If the aim is to create a state-educated elite to rival the private sector then grammar schools are the best answer.

If the aim is to improve overall standards of education, they might also be the answer. If, however, the aim is to alleviate or prevent the creation of an educational subclass, then they may very well not be. The FSM figures demonstrate that where grammar schools exist, they are dominated by the children of the middle class. I have no problem with this - I'm middle class after all - but it's not then about broad social mobility: it's then about blurring the distinction between people like me and the DK and people whose parents weren't quite able to afford private schooling.
The Conservatives aren't suggesting an end to grammar schools: the line is that they're more interested in the 24,000 schools that aren't grammars than the 170 that are. So to those that support the grammar school - is the idea that they are re-introduced across the board? That existing comprehensives are re-classified? There are quite a few practical problems here. What to do with the older students? Maintain a parallel school-within-a-school?
Theodore Roosevelt famously said "do what you can, with what you have, where you are." The wholesale re-engineering of the schools system back into one of grammars and secondary moderns is surely impractical. The problem with this for the Conservatives is twofold. Grammar schools are totemic. The represent the idea of self-reliance, and of self-improvement. Insofar as the Conservative Party is the party of the middle-class, grammar schools make up a large degree of the 'foundation myth'. This is linked to the second problem. The current Conservative leaders are disproportionately privately educated. It doesn't look good for public schoolboys to 'close down' grammar schools - shades of pulling up the drawbridge.
So what to do? Place strong emphasis on the diminishing role of the state in education; introduce more variable funding arrangements that would allow independent schools to receive some degree of state funding in return for reduction in fees (possibly coupled with some sort of 'social benefit' requirement); increase the operational autonomy of state schools; encourage the founding of and growth in successful schools; encourage setting within schools. Above all, get people to remember that Margaret Thatcher closed down grammar schools and that despite the rhetoric John Major didn't re-open any. The Conservatives don't have the luxury of making empty and unenforceable promises.
The hereditary House of Lords worked extremely well. It provided a much more effective revising chamber than the current model. Should the Conservatives promise to re-introduce that too?

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