… to each accroding to his (parents’) contribution”. Ellie McHugh argues that it’s mainly the academic-selection Independent and State Grammar Schools that develop in students the self-possession which empowers true social mobility
After a long period of social upheaval in the post-war years, we once more live in a country where those born in privileged circumstances dominate public life. Indeed, I can’t help but feel that any sublime heights to which I’ve personally risen in my own profession owe as much to my upbringing as to any personal merit.
You see I‘m an Old Ruymian, an alumna of one of the most select schools in England. From the moment I first donned the uniform, I’ve been secure in the knowledge that I’m mistress of my own fate. It’s written in my demeanour, my deportment, the tone of my voice, and the ease with which I can transcend class distinctions.
For those unfamiliar with the Old Ruymians (boasting only a single Conservative Prime Minister – it’s a forgivable oversight) you wouldn’t go far wrong if you pictured a traditional town campus in some pleasing corner of the Home Counties, peopled with serious youths intent on their studies.
To the north, specialist science labs and gymnasia are tucked away discreetly out of sight of the listed gothic facade which plays host to parents and visitors, the musty library (once the school chapel) bathes in the gentle light of stained glass windows, and the playing fields nurture cap-winning rugger, hockey and cricket sides.
Inside the main complex, the burnished oak panels of the dining hall are inscribed in gold leaf with the names of those fallen in wars both major and minor, a constant reminder to pupils of the core Christian virtues expressed by the pelican on the school crest. Duty. Sacrifice. Self-discipline.
Future generals, admirals, prelates, politicians, diplomats, athletes, scientists, musicians and authors have wandered that warren of narrow corridors, added to the accretion of graffiti on worm-pocked desks, and idled in the warm camaraderie of the junior common room.
Is it any wonder that, with the élan of such lustrous history and rarefied surroundings, we Old Ruymians are well-represented in the pages of Who’s Who? Indeed, it’d be fair to say that to be an Old Ruymian is very much to have drawn a winning ticket in the lottery of life.
With a few variations of detail, the above could have been written about any of the great Public Schools: Eton; Harrow; Winchester; Cheltenham. Instead it’s the tale of a state school, now called Chatham and Clarendon Grammar School, in the heart of Ramsgate, an area more often associated with poverty and deprivation.
In the mid-1960s, Anthony Crosland, the then Labour Secretary of State for Education and Science, moved to abolish the selective education provided by Grammar and Technical Schools. By exploiting central government’s control of funding, he pressured Local Education Authorities into adopting the previously experimental Comprehensive model, bringing to an end the tripartite system introduced by the 1944 Education Act.
This lead to the widespread abandonment of selection by cognitive ability, and the merging of many existing Grammars with nearby Secondary Moderns. A few LEAs, however, held out: as a result, there are still 164 Grammar schools in the state sector, mostly day schools, but also including a handful with boarders.
As with most seismic shifts there were winners and losers. Children who’d have attended Secondary Moderns gained improved access to academic subjects and qualifications, whilst those who’d have been destined for the local Grammar lost much of the academic support they’d have previously enjoyed.
The Comprehensive model is inherently utopian: Crosland’s spiritual heirs still argue that the alternative of selective education is both socially divisive and damaging to children’s emotional development. Further, they view the benefits of selection on cognitive ability as unfairly biased towards middle-class children and values. The Comprehensive, in contrast, is supposed to bring children of all backgrounds and aptitudes together into a single community where they can be educated and socialised. For those who accept left-wing rhetoric on class, this argument has a very strong emotive appeal.
But the trouble is that access to high-achieving Comprehensives is often restricted to families able to afford an expensive house in a leafy suburb, fatally undermining the main argument for their superiority to the old Grammar system – not to mention fuelling a succession of housing bubbles.
And this gets to the root of the education conundrum. Everyone agrees that children from all backgrounds should have access to a high quality education, but no one is willing to admit that what currently matters most in a child’s development is how much effort their parents are willing or able to invest to secure that education.
In Comprehensive LEAs, hardworking middle-class parents will buy their way into the cachment areas of highly-rated schools and enforce an economic apartheid over school access. And because they place high expectations on those schools and on their children, a supportive academic ethos is established, which can compete against the independent sector. Meanwhile the academically-capable child growing up in a sink estate is all too often condemned to a second-rate and unfulfilling education, no matter how strong the commitment of their parents.
Those of us who advocate the return of academic selection do so for our own equally utopian belief that every child deserves an education suited to their talents and interests. However there’s more to it than that. In the fanciful parallel drawn earlier between the State Grammar which I attended and the Public Schools attended by David Cameron and Tony Blair, there’s a key element which will affect a child for the rest of their life. And that’s self-possession.
A self-possession which comes from adults who support without patronising, and a school environment where success, whether academic or otherwise, is both expected and celebrated,. No matter how humble the origins of a child educated in such an environment, they know that the highest ranks of both academe and public life are attainable with sufficient hard work and commitment.
Over the past fifty years the people of the United Kingdom have elected five Prime Ministers who were the product of a Grammar School education: Harold Wilson; Edward Heath; Margaret Thatcher; John Major; and Gordon Brown.
If Ed Miliband wins the next general election, then he’ll be the first Comprehensive alumnus to follow in their footsteps. For the progressive socialists this will be a totemic achievement. But can we really view the son of a leading Marxist academic, brought up in affluent North London, through the same lens we use for the daughter of a grocer, or the son of a carpenter? Indeed, is this the best the Comprehensive system can offer as an example of social mobility?
Because if so, then the sooner we return to the Grammar School system, the better for all of us.