The prospect of a grammar school in every city in Britain terrifies a middle class left entrenched in privilege and wealth. Grammar schools represent a golden age in British education when a bright working class boy or girl could make it to the top ranks of government, science the arts or industry.
A famous example of how grammar schools, even before the 11 plus, opened the door to children who as adults would otherwise have lived and died in obscurity was Astronomer Professor Sir Fred Hoyle. In 1922 Hoyle, whose parents started out as mill workers, repeatedly ran away from school because he was bored until, one of his teachers, recognising he was exceptional, encouraged him to try for a scholarship to Bingley Grammar School. It was at Bingley that his outstanding abilities were recognised and he later won a county scholarship to Cambridge. There he went on to become not only one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century, but keeping an independence of mind derived from his humble background, made a discovery in astrophysics as fundamental as Newton’s mathematical description of gravity; how the building blocks of life, carbon, are created in the stars, a discovery whose scientific and philosophical implications have yet to be fully digested. Many times in his life the establishment closed ranks against him, but time has vindicated his originality and freshness of mind and following his theories the world is now launching rocket ships searching for cosmic life.
The door which Hoyle slipped through into Cambridge was only to remain open until 1971, (under a Conservative Government it continued as the 11 plus from 1944 to 1971, formalising a process that was previously at the discretion of headmasters, and not widespread but in 1944 became state funded and available to all children at eleven) a period when post war Britain was in desperate need of high quality graduates. As soon as that need was filled, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, himself a private grammar school boy (Huddersfield present fees £10,000 a year, Jesus College, Oxford), on the advice of his civil servants, slammed it shut.
While some remaining grammar schools were allowed to continue, no more were built, and any hope of the system being resurrected ended with public school boy Tony Blair (Fettes School, present fees £23,000 a year) banning Britain’s highly popular existing Catholic grammars from taking non Catholic pupils, the last route for any further expansion of the system. From then on if you wanted your children to have a good education you had to buy it. The result has been to entrench middle class privilege and to put a stop to social mobility.
The alternative, comprehensive education, has proved an unmitigated disaster. In 2012 the OECD rated English teenagers aged from 16 to 19 the worst of 23 developed nations in literacy and 22nd of 23 in numeracy. Pensioners on the other hand, products of the hated 11 plus system in the 50s and 60s, are rated first.
This attack on working class education, all the more astonishing as it was made by people who consider themselves enlightened democrats, came about because the English middle classes have always regarded working class people, as they do foreigners, as pets; lovable but stupid as well as slightly dangerous, and therefore not fit for any type of serious responsibility. Which is why they need a special education among their own kind. Thus comprehensives.
This assumption led to the ‘All shall have Prizes’ reforms of the eighties and nineties. While middle class children attending fee paying schools were, and are, expected to work desperately hard, to endure ruthless competition and accept harsh discipline, working class children were told they should ‘grow at their own pace’. They did not even have to make the effort to read. Like natives given beads by missionaries they were given books to hold and peer at but no effort was made to help them decipher the contents. Such methods led to a drastic decline in scholastic self discipline, and those children from comprehensives who subsequently became teachers passed this decline onto the next generation of children, who in turn passed them to the next generation of teachers.
Many cannot write or spell correctly. One experienced teacher, shocked to discover she was herself illiterate, recalled after years of teaching told a newspaper, ‘The problem is so bad that two years ago, the head of my inner city primary school in South Yorkshire had to employ a literacy expert — to teach the teachers. Our grasp of grammar and spelling was so poor that we couldn’t even be trusted to teach children aged four to eight.’
As a result of the comprehensive system 5.2 million adults are functionally illiterate, while many graduates leave university as ignorant and confused as they were when they entered.
‘The OECD study concluded that 7% of 20 to 34-year-old graduates in England have numeracy skills below level two, while 3.4% have literacy skills below this level. This means that they struggle to estimate how much petrol is left in a tank from looking at the gauge, or have difficulty understanding instructions on an aspirin bottle.’ (international Business News.
Grammar School pupil Mrs May has now stepped into the arena with an offer of open combat, not just with the negligible Jeremy Corbyn, she knows this is a general election matter which cannot be avoided, but with huge and powerful interest groups within our civil service. In suggesting a grammar school should be built in every city, she is challenging the right of England’s establishment, on whose advice successive governments took us into Europe, opened the door to mass immigration and disenfranchised Britain’s white working class while entrenching private education as the only road to success, to govern. If she succeeds we will see a revolution in British politics as great as that of universal suffrage. There are elements of Spartacus in this struggle. For without education today you are a slave.
Myles Harris (Editor)