After experiencing the fog of progressive subversion repeatedly during the eighties and nineties, it’s not surprising that the Conservatives ended up advocating a return to grammar schools in 1997. Effectively, they had given up on reforming comprehensives when they made that policy decision.
But they were wrong then, and UKIP are wrong now. Grammar schools belong in the history books. What is needed is excellent academic education for everybody, not just for those who can pay for a private tutor to cram their children for the eleven plus.
Whenever someone proposes setting up a state school that champions academic rigour and firm discipline, a school that maybe middle class parents would be happy with, they are accused of wanting a ‘grammar school by the back door’. It’s the sort of accusation which anyone serious about school reform needs to be able to refute.
So let’s examine a couple of the assumptions behind the accusation that founders of free schools are trying to set up some kind of segregated enclave that is safe for the middle classes.
Firstly, there is the central assumption behind the whole concept of selective schooling, that humanity can be divided into the academic and the non-academic. This belief may have its roots in the class system and the elitist mentality of the nineteenth century British public school system, but it has become more firmly entrenched in the last fifty years of supposed egalitarianism.
It has become more firmly entrenched, because progressive methods exacerbate the differences between those of different social classes. Because so little is explicitly taught, those who pick up knowledge from their literate, middle class family background have a far greater advantage. When thorough direct instruction is used, the playing field is far more level.
Direct, traditional methods work for everybody. Discovery learning only works when you already know a lot. So the more discovery learning is used, the more teachers are led to believe that there are those who can and those who can’t, and there’s not much that can be done about it. This mentality can in turn suggest the necessity for different schools for those who can.
Whenever you hear someone say ‘he won’t cope’, what they really mean is ‘I don’t know any methods / refuse to use any methods that will allow him to access this material.’
‘Middle Class Values’
Secondly, there is the very odd and patronising assumption that it is only middle class people who are interested in sending their children to schools that champion academic rigour and firm discipline. Which parent would not like their child to study in an ordered environment in which material is properly explained and hard work is insisted upon?
Of course, there are parents who are ideologically opposed to the new traditionalism, but they are more likely to be middle class liberals. I recently read a blog by a parent of a child with special needs that referred to ‘Harris gulags’, and was convinced that they would crush any fragile self-esteem which their child had succeeded in building despite the cruelties of KS2 tests. But this was a parent who appeared to have swallowed the progressive snake-oil that their child’s primary school had been serving up. They seemed really to believe that projects were wonderful and creative, and tests were nasty and mean. Based on their articulate blog, I would guess that this person received a pretty good academic education themselves, or at least came from a literate, educated family. Those devoted to progressive ideas often do.
Let’s knock this one on the head and throw it in the canal. Hard work, self-discipline and perseverance are not middle class values. They are just good values, that will enable anyone to succeed, regardless of social background. And no-one will develop them if they are not tested and allowed to realise what they do not know, so that they can do something about it.
We do want grammar schools: for everybody
Harold Wilson, when introducing comprehensive schooling in the 1960s, heralded the reforms as ‘grammar schools for all.’ Of course, we know that is not what happened, as the programme was hijacked by progressives who turned seventies comps into a nightmare of permissive discipline and academic dumbing down.
In the end, I suppose the critics are right. Founders of free schools may well be trying to set up grammar schools. But they are not setting up selective schools. They are carrying out the original intentions of Harold Wilson’s government.
(Image of Harold Wilson from http://www.gac.culture.gov.uk/ via Wikimedia)