The grammar school debate exposes
Left wing hypocrisy

The mere suggestion that the Government may repeal the ban on new grammar schools has sent Left wingers into meltdown. The arguments against are dubious. It is foolish to use evidence based on the tiny amount of grammars left – oversubscribed, narrowly rationed and dominated by the middle class – in a few affluent enclaves to argue against a wider national network. Neither is it very imaginative to cite the flaws of the system abolished forty years ago and argue as if they must all necessarily be recreated.

Not enough grammars were built, more needed to opened in poor areas, too few girls attended, the admissions system was too restrictive and final, we failed to build technical colleges and boost vocational education and “secondary moderns” were not good enough.

None of these problems were solved by abolishing grammars; good comprehensives are dominated by the middle class, elite comps have very restrictive admission criteria, poor people too often have no choice but to send their children to a poor school and we still haven’t built enough technical colleges or adequately supported vocational education. All of these problems could’ve been addressed without abolishing grammars, and they can be addressed now while introducing grammars back into our increasingly diverse system.

Unfortunately, much of the opposition to grammars is purely ideological and thus cannot be reasoned with. The old fashioned Labour Party contained a healthy contingent of politicians who knew what grammars had the potential to do for the poor. It was Labour councils that had proudly built many of them; but by the 1960’s the Party was vehemently opposed and sadly Conservatives were either complicit or weak in their opposition.

Now this is one issue on which the Corbynite socialists and the New Labour Blairites will agree on, and the Leftist hypocrisy on education has even spread into the Conservative Party.

Under Miliband’s opposition, TV host come Blairite poster boy Tristram Hunt, the privately educated Shadow Education Secretary, was fervently opposed to grammar schools and free schools. Yet he admitted that he would consider sending his own children to a private school. This is not surprising and it is nothing new. Labour politicians and supporters have a long track record of this blatant hypocrisy. It does more than anything to expose what they know, deep down, about the failures of the comprehensive education system.

Labour’s education policy is bad for the poor, and it always has been. The comprehensive education system as it is currently set up heavily favours the rich, why is this? Because the rich can buy their children a good education in several ways that are not available to the poor.

They can pay fees; giving their children a huge advantage in life over those educated in comprehensives. They can buy into an affluent area to ensure they are within the catchment area of a good comprehensive picketed off for the wealthy. They can send their children to a school with a religious ethos and play along. Or they can pretend to be big supporters of the state education system while shelling out for private tutors. All of these behaviours are rife in the current system, making them extremely weak evidence against grammars.

There are many successful Comprehensive schools, that I certainly do not deny, but there are also too many awful failures and it is the poor that have to suffer them. The abolition of grammars did not lift the system. Over the last few decades standards have lowered, literacy and numeracy skills have declined and the poor and the underclass have become de-educated.

Far too many comprehensives are what Alistair Campbell called “bog-standard”, rotten institutions that are failing children and churning out ignorant illiterates. These are places that Labour politicians and the Left wing elite would never send their children.

Left wingers have a long history of passionately supporting comprehensive schools, until it comes to their own children. Then Leftist politicians are forced to worry about the political difficulty of sending their children to private schools, and their socialist supporters (especially activists and Labour luvvies) worry about the damage to their image. There are countless Labour politicians who have spent their careers destroying or denouncing grammars and independent schools before sacrificing their ideology (and exposing their hypocrisy and insincerity) for the sake of their children.

Tony Crosland, the sneering socialist whose spiteful dogmatic aim was ‘to destroy every fucking grammar school in this country’ – which he just about managed to do – sent his children to a private school. So did Shirley Williams, another visionary of the comprehensive system.  Harold Wilson and James Callaghan both sent their children to private schools, as did Diane Abbott and Ruth Kelly. Dear old firebrand Harriet Harman snubbed her local comprehensive and sent her sons to a grammar school in Kent. You know, one of the few grammar schools remaining that left wing people constantly argue are no better than comprehensives. For the Left wing elite it is a case of ‘do what I say, not as I do’.

The other common trick is to play the system. You can say you have sent your children to a comprehensive even though the school is an elitist institution reserved for the wealthy (often a faith school and never the local school). This is a common ploy employed by Labour and, increasingly, Blairite Tories. Tony Blair chose the London Oratory, a high-performing elite faith school in Fulham. Michael Gove snubbed his local school, Burlington Danes, despite all the praise he lavished on it. He sent his daughter to an elite girls only Church school; the Grey Coat Hospital, which is much further form his home. David Cameron pulled a similar trick and got undeserved plaudits for sending his daughter to St Mary Abbots Primary School, an exclusive Church of England establishment off Kensington High Street. He later sent her to Grey Coats Hospital and intends to privately educate his son.

This hypocrisy of the Left in education goes far beyond politicians. It is evident amongst the liberal and socialist commentariat and intellectuals. Claud Cockburn the lifelong Stalinist Communist paid for private education for all three of his sons. Janet Murray, who has regularly written about education for the Guardian, sent here daughter to private school. Leftist anchor Jon Snow did the same. As did the Leftist queen of rank hypocrisy, three homes Polly Toynbee, whose three children are all privately educated. These are just a few prominent examples. Following them in their double standards are a long line of barristers, media folk, political advisers and academics.

The Labour Party has suffered a steep moral decline from its origins as a patriotic working class party to a party of elitist bien pensant metropolitan progressives. It is now a party of the liberal-left middle class that clings to egalitarian ideology even as it systematically destroys opportunities that used be open to the poor. By mindlessly destroying the Grammar Schools the Labour Party, aided and abetted by the Conservative Party, pulled up a ladder that could be climbed by bright and able children from poor backgrounds.

They continue to deny their mistake, yet the higher ranks of the media, politics and beyond are full of those who enjoyed a grammar school education. In the early 1960’s Oxford and Cambridge were full of grammar school educated pupils and grammar schools were serious rivals to private schools. Now they are gone and private schools were given a new lease of life. Government is now full of the privately educated elite and all our most successful sportsmen, actors, journalists etc. are privately educated.

If you are rich and a socialist I do not believe you should feel guilty for sending your children to a private or elitist school, you simply want what is best for them and know how to get it. You should feel guilty for making it almost impossible for the children of the poor to get a good education. You should feel guilty for the mad destruction of hundreds of grammar schools, direct grant schools and the senseless abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme. You should feel very guilty indeed and stop preventing attempts to correct these mistakes.

Ben is the Conservatives for Liberty Online Director.  Follow him on Twitter: @TheScepticIsle

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty

  • letmethink

    I left primary school in 1963, having passed my 11+ and been accepted at the local grammar school.

    On leaving my primary school, the headmaster told me and my parents that I was the only child in his school who was ‘university material’ (in those days, it wasn’t the case that everyone and their brother went to ‘UNI’).

    In my second year at senior school it was re-badged as a secondary modern and in my third year it became a comprehensive.

    After a mass exodus of all the best teachers and me transitioning from being motivated and diligent to truculent and mostly absent, I left school at 15 with just enough ‘O’ levels to get into the local tech. college. It’s been an uphill battle ever since.

    They should all be totally ashamed of themselves

  • I hope the re-introduction of Grammar schools will be a stepping stone towards a ‘voucher’ system like they have in Sweden, whereby parents receive a sum of money for each of their child to cover the costs of state education or to put towards private tuition.

  • Brian Boru

    I’m surprised that Northern Ireland was not discussed here and the success of grammar schools over there.

    • Hi Brian, absolutely right, I’m putting something together of more substance, which will look at NI and Germany and the success of the systems there.

  • Frank

    Suggest you listen to the excellent More or Less on this:

    In summary the fact that we have some counties/areas that maintain a grammar school system means that we can do a very realistic comparison. The results are clear.

    * Rich people’s kids tend to get into grammar school – poor people’s kids tend not to.
    * Rich people’s kids on average do better in grammar school areas.
    * On average across all kids they do better in comprehensive school areas