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Why Is Selection by Wealth Better Than Selection by Ability?

Peter Hitchens, March 2015

TIAOOSSSEnemies of the grammar schools have a favourite argument. What about those who fail to get into them, and are condemned to ‘secondary moderns’? They treat us to tear-stained reminiscences of the sad day each year when the 11-plus divided brother from sister, neighbour from neighbour, friend from friend. The lucky winners skipped off in their blazers to a bright future. The miserable losers crept shamefacedly to a sink school, doomed to be hewers of wood and drawers of water. Actually, this day still takes place, all over England, every year at the start of March. It is called ‘national offer day’, and it is when parents find out if they have got their children into their ‘first choice’ secondary school. Officially, about one in five won’t, but the truth is far worse than that. It is risky to aim too high, as failure to get into a top school will often rule you out of a place at a middling one, and send you sliding down the snake of misfortune. So many parents cautiously opt for a ‘first choice’ that is in fact nothing of the kind, settling for second or third best for fear of having their children exiled to the worst school in the town.

Most towns and cities in England have secondary schools that are known by the well-informed to be the best. Many are former grammar schools and quite a few are single-sex. The easiest way to get your children into them is to live close to them, and estate agents will tell you that such schools can add an average of £54,000 to the price of a house, in the capital. In some cases it is more like £200,000. London left-wing parents are particularly good at this Game of Homes. It is also often a question of faith, real or alleged. Too bad if you don’t have well-informed parents, who can navigate the complex entry procedures of the better schools. Take The Grey Coat Hospital (Church of England Comprehensive Academy for Girls), the elite secondary school favoured for their daughters by fellow-Blairites Harriet Harman and Michael Gove. Its admissions rules go on for pages, and give great privileges to those who show the outward signs of Christian faith. As there is no way to check the inner truth, points are awarded for observable levels of piety, work and commitment, such as turning up for services, contributing to the parish magazine and sitting on committees. (This is rather contrary to the spirit of Luke 18:10-14, in which Christ prefers the genuinely repentant to the ostentatious worshipper.) The Grey Coat Hospital also selects its sheep from its goats through the use of a catchment area so precise that it takes 134 words to explain. Here is a sample: ‘Where it is necessary to differentiate between applicants living in flats using the same street entrance, priority will be given to the applicant(s) living closest to the ground floor and then by ascending flat number order.’ This sort of thing is not confined to church schools. One non-religious former girls’ grammar school in London has a catchment area which currently extends 1,230 yards from the school gate, a measurement that does wonders for property prices in a few favoured streets nearby, and has caused at least one millionaire New Labour power couple to move house at great expense to secure good schooling for their daughters without committing the socialist sin of paying actual fees. If anyone can work out the true moral difference between these two forms of buying privilege, I should like to know what it is.

Thus can the whole course of a child’s life be decided, by a parent’s willingness, sincerely or not, to press their teeth on the Communion wafer, their readiness to warble in the church choir, their ability to afford to live sufficiently close to the school gate, or even their prescient cunning in choosing the ground-floor flat rather than one higher up the building. I could go on. These procedures, arbitrary, elaborate, labyrinthine and ever-changing, are well-known to the pushy and sharpelbowed. They are baffling to almost everyone else. Forget jokes about putting children down for Eton at birth. To get into some of these alleged comprehensives it is necessary to start house-hunting before you are even pregnant. The bright child of a poor home, whose parents know little of schooling and perhaps care less, will seldom if ever penetrate through this thicket of trickery and self-aggrandisement to the best state secondary schools. And yet the enemies of grammar schools defend this system of secret knowledge, privilege and (often) false piety, as being fairer than open selection by ability. Perhaps that is because it is fairer to them, personally. Perhaps it is because it allows them to obtain all the advantages of the old grammar schools, while not in any way challenging the egalitarian comprehensive system or threatening their political or media careers. All parents are equal, but some are a lot more equal than others.

There’s no doubt that the pre-1965 system had many faults. There were too few grammar schools in general, and especially in some parts of the country. There were far too few grammar school places for girls. An interesting result of this shortage was that by the mid- 1960s, some secondary modern pupils were winning good A-levels and getting into university, both achievements rather more difficult than they are today. Few of the technical schools that had been planned and promised in the 1944 Education Act had ever been built. Many primary schools in poorer areas were not as good as they should have been at bringing on talent. No doubt the quality of grammar schools varied, and there was too little help for children from poor homes who wanted to stay in full-time education. Even so, the grammars themselves worked well in several important ways. None of their faults were fixed by their abolition, and all of them could have been addressed without their abolition.

The 1966 Franks Report into Oxford University, published at the very end of the pre-comprehensive era, recorded that in 1938-9, private school pupils had won 62 per cent of places at that university. A further 13 per cent were won by direct grant schools, independent schools which took large numbers of bright state pupils in return for government or local authority payments. Just 19 per cent came from other state schools, presumably all grammar schools at that time. The rest were from abroad, or educated at home. By 1958-9 (14 years after the Butler Education Act created the national selective system and made grammar schools more widely available), the private school share was down to 53 per cent, direct grants up to 15 per cent and state grammars up to 30 per cent. By 1964-5, private schools were down again to 45 per cent, direct grants up to 17 per cent and grammars up to 34 per cent. How much further this revolution might have gone, we will never know. It was abruptly terminated by Anthony Crosland and Margaret Thatcher in their bipartisan dissolution of grammar schools, just as it was really gathering pace. The direct grant schools survived for a while longer, but were casually wiped out by Fred Mulley (more famous for falling asleep next to the Queen during an air show) in October 1975.

Was this burst of meritocracy just a feature of our postwar society, as some have suggested?

****CORRECTION: I must here correct a serious error in earlier versions of this article: I originally said: ‘ Interesting figures suggest that the effect would have continued, if the schools had survived. In Northern Ireland, which still selects at 11 by ability, the university chances of a child from a poor home are now almost one-third greater than those of his or her equivalent in largely comprehensive England, and almost 50 per cent greater than in fully-comprehensive Scotland (according to figures supplied by the independent Higher Education Statistics Agency). It is reasonable to suppose that the pre-1965 mainland grammar system (including Scotland’s parallel system of academies) had a similar effect.’ In fact I misread these figures, as Professor Tony Gallagher of Queen’s University, Belfast has pointed out to me. They refer to undergraduates *in* Northern Irish universities, not to Northern Irish students in UK universities. The error is entirely mine.****

More generally, a recent study of European schools has produced some very interesting results, worrying for those on the Left who believe selection is bad for the poor. Several continental countries still maintain selective state secondaries, and Germany has recently successfully restored them in the former German Democratic Republic (which, being Communist, was almost wholly comprehensive). This happened, in the states of the former East Germany, by popular demand. It is an interesting disproof of the repeated claim that ‘you can’t turn the clock back’. The survey, conducted across Europe by France’s National Institute for Demographic Studies, actually set out to prove that selective education discriminated against children from poor backgrounds. But it found that, when children were taught according to ability, family wealth had almost no influence on their achievements. By contrast, in non-selective systems, a poor background did influence outcomes, with British pupils doing particularly badly on this scale. The study, (published in the European Sociological Review) reached its conclusions by examining the reading performance of tens of thousands of 15-year-olds across 22 countries. So it is reasonable to say that, whatever was wrong with the pre-1965 secondary school system, destroying the grammar schools was not the cure. The policy of annihilating the grammars reminds me of Evelyn Waugh’s response when news was brought to him that surgeons had removed a non-malignant tumour from some part of Randolph Churchill. ‘How typical of the medical profession’, he said, ‘to have rummaged through the whole of Randolph, found the only part that was not malignant, and removed it.’

Another much-used argument against grammars is the accurate contention that the few remaining academically selective secondaries are middle-class fortresses, with a low take-up of free school meals. This is perfectly true. But it is a consequence of the abolition of a national selective system, not an argument against such a system itself. The middle-class stronghold in selective secondaries proves nothing except that the middle-classes will fight very hard indeed to get an education worth at least £100,000 in taxed income. They will hire tutors, send their children to expensive preparatory schools and move into cramped houses in areas they can ill afford. None of this would be necessary if there were a national system of grammar schools. The remaining grammars are hopelessly oversubscribed because there are too few of them. The same is true of the secretly selective elite schools which exist where grammar schools don’t, and it is not even mitigated by the continuing possibility that the child of a poor home might penetrate the screen of privilege. But the take-up of free meals in these schools tends not to be criticised by egalitarian leftists, because that would draw attention to the very large number of privileged middle-class families who have made cunning use of them. These objectors are also very reluctant to discuss the general destructive effect on state and private education which has followed the abolition of a national selective system. This may be the clearest sign that the comprehensive system has brought about a fall in all school standards. One of the saddest effects of this is that many private and state schools can call themselves ‘excellent’ because they regularly harvest sheaves of high grades in public examinations. But in fact there could well be huge differences between these schools, which modern examinations do not detect because they are hostile to or uninterested in excellence, and instead interested only in ‘qualifications’ for their own sake. They compress all reasonably high achievers into a single top grade, and allow children to pass who would until recently have failed. It is amazing how often defenders of the egalitarian system will defend it by saying that it has led to many more children possessing ‘qualifications’. When challenged to show that these ‘qualifications’ are worth anything, or actually qualify their holders for anything, they fall silent or change the subject. As with all vast egalitarian projects, from collectivisation upwards, the statistics ultimately become more important than the truth, and end up concealing it.

There is little doubt that general levels of secondary education have fallen since selection on merit was abandoned. It is now 14 years since the Engineering Council revealed the results of a ten-year survey of undergraduates entering maths, science and engineering courses. All were given an identical, unchanging test. This showed that, as these entrants’ A level grades had risen, their mathematical understanding had declined. Students who had narrowly failed their A-levels in 1991 had actually scored higher in the Council’s tests than those who obtained ‘C’ grade passes seven years later. Durham University mounted a similar exercise, giving a general ability test to its first-year students over a long period. As Jenni Russell wrote in the Guardian 11 years ago, ‘The results show that students of the same ability are now achieving two A-level grades higher in every subject than they were 15 years ago.’ The reality of grade inflation (shamefully denied by the education establishment for years, but now grudgingly admitted, even by them, to have taken place) was in fact quite evident very early on in the comprehensive experiment.

In October 1975 Raymond Baldwin, a member of Manchester’s Education Committee, warned of a ‘great comprehensive gamble’ as GCE results in merged schools declined in that city. Two months before, the Daily Mail had reported a severe fall in the GCE performances of schools in Liverpool, following comprehensive reorganisation in that city. Sheffield’s experience was similar. In a report in November 1974 the Daily Telegraph noted that Sheffield had experienced a ‘gradual decline in the percentage of comprehensive school pupils succeeding in GCE examinations’. Pupils at the about-to-be-abolished direct grant schools, meanwhile, showed ‘a constant increase in GCE success rates’. But at about that time, the grading system of Olevels was altered, so that candidates who would previously have failed were now awarded pass certificates graded ‘D’ and ‘E’. Even this did not manage to conceal the continuing fall in exam scores, which eventually led to a further dilution – the creation of the GCSE in 1987. This wholly different type of examination makes it impossible to compare today’s secondary school performance directly with that of the old selective system. It is tempting to speculate that this was one of the aims of those who introduced it. But the Engineering Council and Durham University surveys both show that a measurable decline has taken place in the period following the abolition of selection by ability. Claims that the evidence for decline is based on nothing more than anecdote are simply false.

None of the facts above are particularly difficult to obtain, nor will they come as much of a surprise to anyone who has been either a school pupil or a parent of school-age children during the past 40 years. There is no doubt that English state and private education has experienced a revolution in that period. Not all of it resulted from the abolition of selection. Harold Wilson’s expansion of teacher training in the late 1960s greatly changed the teaching profession. When I was an education reporter in the late 1970s, the (then) socially conservative Daily Telegraph was still crammed with advertisements for teaching posts. Now, most of this recruitment is done through the Guardian, and the Daily Telegraph has adjusted smoothly to the age of drug decriminalisation and extra-marital sex. Even if the grammar schools had survived in large numbers, they would by now be very different places from the canehaunted, mortar-board infested establishments of 1965. But then the same is true of the German gymnasiums. Even in conservative Bavaria, they have relaxed a little, but they still provide an excellent education, compared with our comprehensives.

All this is a rather cautious prelude to a sort of cry of pain. I have striven to rebut in detail the standard arguments of those who continue (against all facts and reason) to pretend that no harm was done by the closing of the grammar schools. As it happens, it is clear from Anthony Crosland’s own book The Future of Socialism (recently re-published) that the man who wrecked state education had almost no idea what he was doing, and wholly misjudged the likely outcomes of his own policies. But the worst thing about this debate is that it is completely ignored in mainstream politics. The Left have their own egalitarian reasons for wishing to shut it off. They actually banned the creation of any new grammar schools in David Blunkett’s School Standards and Framework Act. Since then, they have been working hard to minimise selection by ability at the English and Welsh universities, putting pressure on them to make social as well as educational judgements and making public attacks on the ancient universities where selection by ability is still strong (such as Gordon Brown’s ill-informed assault on Magdalen College, Oxford, over the non-admission of the state-school pupil Laura Spence).

The passion of the Left for comprehensive education is such that at least one former Labour MP (I will not name him because I find his behaviour almost admirable) claims to have attended a comprehensive school when he could not have done. The school involved, long ago merged, was at the time a secondary modern. But I feel quite differently about Frances O’Grady, now the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress. O’Grady allowed the Guardian newspaper to say in 2012 that she had attended ‘Milham Ford Comprehensive’ in Oxford. This is not exactly accurate. When she arrived there, in 1971, it was still a girls’ grammar school. Like most of those who entered grammar schools during their transition into comprehensives, O’Grady is likely to have benefited from a selective education, in a ‘grammar stream’ until the end of her schooling. In fact (largely thanks to pressure from Muslim parents) Milham Ford survived as Oxford’s last single-sex girls’ state secondary until quite recently. I don’t recollect it ever describing itself as a ‘comprehensive’ (few schools do, but see below). Had it really been a ‘comprehensive’ when she entered it, one has to wonder if O’Grady would now be in charge of the TUC. It is easy enough to see why a trade union official might fudge this matter. But far more significant is the behaviour of Theresa May, the current Home Secretary, now being spoken of as a possible future leader of the Conservative Party. May annually tells the MPs’ reference book Dod’s Parliamentary Companion, that she attended ‘Wheatley Park Comprehensive’. In fact, when she arrived there (from a convent school) it was still very much ‘Holton Park Girls’ Grammar School’. Like O’Grady, she would have been kept in a grammar stream during the school’s merger with the nearby Shotover secondary modern. Again had she not been treated so, one has to wonder if she would have gone on (as she did) to Oxford and to the Cabinet. Again, I don’t think Wheatley Park has ever actually described itself as a ‘comprehensive’.

The Tory surrender to the comprehensive revolution has been one of the most interesting political developments of the last 20 years. As late as the 1990s, John Major (who attended a selective school) talked of having a grammar school in every town. Michael Howard used to boast of his grammar school past in parliamentary tussles with the privately educated Tony Blair. Nothing happened as a result of these promises and flourishes. But since the advent of David Cameron, even the rhetoric has altered. In May 2007 the Tory leader had a damaging public quarrel with Graham Brady MP, and many other members of his own party, over his decision to abandon past promises to build any new grammar schools. Presumably Cameron thought the question important enough to alienate quite large numbers of supporters (which it duly did). It is interesting to wonder why a Tory leader might be ready to do this. In fact it is one of the most startling political facts of modern times – and so one of the least examined – that nominal Conservatives have adopted socialist attitudes towards education. They have done this most especially by speaking and writing as if it is a self-evident virtue to send one’s children to a state, rather than an independent school. Yet this could only be a virtue for a dogmatic egalitarian, which nominal Conservatives have never openly said they are. After all, a rich person who can afford fees and sends a child to a scarce good state school is actually depriving a poor family of that place. For a non-egalitarian this must at least be morally dubious, if not actually greedy and bad. Yet in December 2005, soon after becoming leader of his party, Cameron was asked if he wanted his children to attend state schools and replied: ‘Yes, absolutely. I’ve got my eye on a particular one. I’ll make my decision for my daughter based on my views as a parent not as a politician. That’s the right thing to do. But I would like them to go to a local state school.’ Nobody seems to have asked him why. Soon after this he (alongside then Education Secretary Michael Gove) had succeeded in inserting his children into a wholly untypical, picturesque and hugely oversubscribed Church of England primary school in Kensington, far from his home. In November 2012, Cameron went further still. He said:

‘I would like my children to go to state schools, that’s my intention, and I think what’s happening in the state school system is really exciting. What we’re seeing is something we should have seen years ago which is the flowering of more choice, more competition, more diversity and crucially, higher standards. I want my children to be part of that and I’m very heartened by what is happening.’

The assumption in all these words and actions was that there was some sort of special virtue inherent in sending a child to a state school. What virtue is that? For left-wingers, it is obvious. In the state system the classes mix, religion is weak or absent, the purpose is egalitarian. But for conservatives, the classes mix on the wrong terms. In the grammar schools, everyone aspires to middle-classness. In the comprehensives, they do not. The difference is clearly encapsulated by the way that middle-class children now speak with fake estuary accents whereas grammar school pupils, such as Margaret Thatcher and Joan Bakewell, took elocution lessons to acquire BBC voices. Michael Gove’s journalist wife, Sarah Vine, explained in the Daily Mail why she wanted her daughter to go to a state school:

‘The private sector is built on very different principles. Its agenda is a fundamentally selective one, based not only on ability to pay, but also on pupil potential. And it is also, let’s face it, about snobbery. Of course the parents of private school children are paying for the best teachers and facilities. But let’s be honest: they’re also paying for their child to mix with the right kind of kids.’

The school she has chosen for this act of anti-snobbish social mixing is The Grey Coat Hospital, miles from the Goves’ modest west London home. Though it (very unusually) describes itself as a ‘comprehensive’ on its freshly-painted signboard, it is a former girls’ grammar school which has somehow managed to stay single-sex, and whose entry requirements go on for pages, so much so it would take a combination of Einstein and Thomas Aquinas to grasp their full meaning. Its official uniform supplier is Peter Jones of Sloane Square. It may disappoint her if she wants her daughter to mix very much with ‘the wrong kind of kids’. When the Labour politician Harriet Harman chose it for one of her children some years ago, the Daily Mirror accurately described it as an ‘elite’ school. Just 14 per cent of its pupils are eligible for free school meals, hardly enough poor girls to go round for serious inter-class mixing. Had the Goves been really keen on egalitarian rough and tumble, and the mixing of the classes, they would surely have been better off picking Burlington Danes Academy, which is also an Anglican school and is a couple of minutes’ walk from their front door. What is more, it has the former Education Secretary’s personal warm approval. In 2011 Gove wrote a newspaper article in which he listed Burlington Danes among schools in which ‘excellence is becoming a universal expectation, academic study a driving purpose’. Later he numbered it among ‘some superb state schools in disadvantaged areas generating fantastic results’. He said of these schools:

‘They do much better in exams than many schools, including private schools, in leafy areas. Their students win places at Oxbridge on merit. All because their heads, from the moment any child arrives, refuse to accept excuses for under-performance.’

Why not then choose this paradise, and be spared the tedious shopping trips to Sloane Square for uniform? It can’t be that it doesn’t provide enough opportunities for social mixing. Tom Hodgkinson, a Burlington Danes parent, wrote in the Independent in March 2014 that nearly 70 per cent of its pupils were eligible for free meals, so sharply reducing the risk of snobbery. He added ‘Our daughter says some of her classmates were amazed she lived in a house with stairs.’

Somehow or other, the oddity of this decision by the Education Secretary at the time was not much explored by media who preferred to coo that he was the first Tory Education Secretary to send his child to a state secondary (actually even this is not true: Gillian Shephard did so 20 years before). But it does explain why the irresistible logic of selection by ability never seems to gain any supporters at the top of British politics or our great media empires. Left and right together have learned to use the state system to get their own children the advantages of grammar schools, without the need to face a difficult political battle. The recent movement for ‘free schools’ has created a similar escape route for the active and pushy middle-classes. It is hard to be sure whether these people actually imagine that their lives are normal. It would be much kinder to think that they do, for if they understand their own actions properly, they must know that they are actively abandoning the children of others to a fate they would not allow their own offspring to suffer.

This essay is taken from The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools: A Debate, edited by Anastasia de Waal and featuring a wide range of perspectives on academic selection.

About the Author

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday, and the author of a series of books on Britain’s cultural, moral and religious revolution. He was privately educated in various boarding schools until the age of 15, after which he attended a College of Further Education.


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