17 September 2016

Still in favour of Grammars


It's been all over the news. The Tories want to lift the ban on Grammar Schools. There is near unanimity amongst teachers and education types that this is a backward step by a deluded and out-of-touch political class hankering for the glory days of imagined British greatness. And although I may agree on this assessment of the Tory party, I've yet to be convinced that grammars are a bad idea.

I've heard scarcely a voice in the wilderness of the public sphere in favour of the status quo. Except, that is, for two well-known conservative figures, who have both written in support of Grammars. Their names would give the game away, of course. (But what the heck: see here and here)

In this post I want to confront two arguments in favour of retaining the ban on new grammar schools that are the most repeated.

Argument 1. Grammar schools don't work.

Well I'm pretty sure they do. Grammar schools consistently out-perform comprehensive schools in terms of academic results; it's not hard to find the data. But I'm leading you on, because I know what is meant by the 'Grammar schools don't work' trope. What people mean when they say this is that grammar schools don't make poor, working class kids financially better off.

My response to this is, so what? That's not an argument against grammar schools for anyone but the staunchest of utilitarians and the money-obsessed.

And besides, grammar school does make poor kids richer. It enriches their minds through exposure to the great works of art and literature, and to an abundant cultural heritage of which they might have otherwise had little experience. Grammar schools typically provide an enormous amount of extra-curricular activity, especially in drama and sport. Do we judge the quality of a person's education by the paycheck it ultimately produces? Or do we judge it by the beauty and wisdom and knowledge deposited in the minds of the kids?

What confuses me about this most is that those people who I have heard vehemently decrying the idea that the central purpose of schools is to create economically prosperous citizens will happily use (or re-tweet!) the argument when it comes to assessing the worth of grammar schools.

Grammar schools do work. Just not in the excruciatingly narrow sense that seems to have been carelessly adopted as the primary criterion.

Argument 2. Everyone is entitled to the very best education

Perhaps it's the not the schools themselves but the structure of the whole system with which you find fault. It's not that some reach their academic potential, but that others fail to.

After all, there's nothing much to disagree with when it comes to the statement 'everyone is entitled to the very best education'. Except that it's an essentially meaningless platitude. The first question to ask is not whether or not grammar schools are the way to provide the best education for everyone, but whether you think all schools can provide the very best education. It would be great if we could make that the case, but I'm sceptical. And so I'll stick my neck out and say no, they can't all be that good. Under any system.

The very best education in my view is found in a school espousing traditional pedagogy with a culture of high expectations for behaviour, a focus on imparting the collective wisdom of the ancients, a fast pace of teaching and great depth of content, as well as a strong moral dimension. You know, like a grammar school. You might get the odd Comprehensive meeting these criteria, like the much-vaunted Michaela for example, but what can't be done is to have this grammar-style education for all children in all schools.

It can't be done because too many teachers think it's a flawed or old-fashioned way to run a school. It can't be done because there isn't the collective will to make it happen. It can't be done because people aren't as interested in applying the latest educational research findings as we might like to think. It cant be done because there can never be enough teachers of a good enough standard to carry the necessary burden. It can't be done because there is seldom the 'critical mass' of academically driven kids required in a given comprehensive cohort to make it work. It can't be done because kids are not bottomless receptacles of knowledge waiting to be filled up. Some of them are more or less capable of - as well as more or less inclined to - learning than others. Everyone knows this.

The Trade-off

I'm in favour of grammars because the real-life alternative is worse (especially for those white, working class kids whose levels of attainment the educational establishment bemoans). As a conservative (that's a small 'c', I must insist you realise), I'm put off by Utopian visions which always fail to materialise.  The same is true here. The grammar school / comprehensive system is manifestly imperfect, but, imperfection is something we're going to have to learn to live with. In the words of the ever-quotable Thomas Sowell, 'there are no solutions, only trade-offs'.

Grammar schools are a perfectly reasonable trade off between the Utopian vision of the admirably-optimistic left-leaners and the dog-eat-capitalist-dog world of Independent schools and selection by parental income. Mrs May's government should lift the ban.

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