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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 June 2007, 00:35 GMT 01:35 UK
Grammar schools - why all the fuss?
Mike Baker byline graphic
By Mike Baker

Exam room
The 11-plus exam became unpopular in the 1950s
Is it any wonder parents are confused over schools policy?

For the past week or so, the headlines have been all about the row over the Conservative Party leadership's abandonment of support for grammar schools.

The latest twist has been over whether this would mean a Conservative government could still allow the building of new grammar schools in areas where academic selection already exists, such as Buckinghamshire.

The debate has plunged the Conservatives into a full-blown split over grammar schools, something that until now had appeared to be the preserve of the Labour Party.

But hang on a minute: why are some Tories getting so hot under the collar about a policy change which, on the face of it, seems to change nothing at all?

Parents simply do not come out with placards saying 'Save Our Secondary Moderns'.

Look at the facts. How many grammar schools did the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major create? Answer: none.

Going further back, how many grammar schools were turned into comprehensives under Edward Heath's government, when a certain Margaret Thatcher was education secretary? Answer: lots.

Indeed, Mrs Thatcher (as she then was) is understood to have signed away more grammar schools between 1970 and 1974 than any other education secretary before or since.

And let's go further back still. Who brought in comprehensive schools in the first place? It is often - but mistakenly - believed that comprehensive schools were introduced by Harold Wilson's Labour government in the mid-1960s.

In fact, the first comprehensive schools were opened during the 1950s and early 1960s, under Conservative governments.

The idea of comprehensive schools came from the USA - that well known hot-bed of left-wing ideas.

And the idea of "comprehensive high schools" was first brought back to Britain by a British educator who had been teaching over there. That was in 1929.

In the meantime, little happened to develop comprehensive schools as the Labour government of 1945 introduced the 11-plus selection examination and reinforced the tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools.

'Unpopular 11-plus'

Yet some local councils, especially rural ones, felt the single comprehensive school system was the way to go. So the first comprehensives were created - as a local movement meeting local demands - under a Conservative government.

This was in contrast to the previous Labour government (1945-51), which had rejected several local schemes for comprehensive school reorganisation.

Although the attack on grammar schools is associated with the Labour Party - particularly after 1976 when a Labour government required local councils to submit school reorganisation plans - the reality is that comprehensive education was not Labour's idea.

Indeed, according to the definitive study of the spread of comprehensive education by Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty, England reached the landmark of more than half of all pupils in comprehensive schools during the Conservative government of 1970-74.

So, maybe, David Cameron is more in line with Conservative traditions than the critics in his party might think.

It is a reality, often forgotten now, that 11-plus selection became deeply unpopular from as early as the 1950s.

It was not just that the outcomes were often inaccurate or unfair.

More significant was the fact that the middle-classes were growing in numbers and, increasingly, they could not get into the grammar schools.

The tragedy of Britain's post-war school development was that financial constraints meant the proposed new technical schools were never built in large numbers.

The promised shiny-new secondary moderns were, in reality, often simply the old elementary schools under a new name.


Growing numbers of parents did not want their children to go to these second-rate secondary moderns.

And this was something that Conservative-controlled local councils recognised and acted upon.

This is a reality that Mr Cameron too has recognised. Parents simply do not come out with placards saying "Save Our Secondary Moderns".

Yet, of course, creating new grammar schools would inevitably mean creating more secondary moderns. You simply cannot have one without the other.

There is, of course, a separate debate to be had about how successful comprehensive schools have been in academic terms.

In the late 1970s they were indelibly associated with mixed-ability teaching even though there is no immutable rule that comprehensive schools should forbid setting, or even streaming.

But there is another factor to be taken in to account when appraising comprehensive education and that is the basic fact that England has never had a comprehensive school system.

The existence of grammar schools, selective independent schools, and partially selective schools has meant that most comprehensives have never had a genuinely 'comprehensive' intake, in the sense of one that reflects the full distribution of ability levels in the local population.

The Benn and Chitty study estimated that - even at the high point of comprehensive schooling in the mid 1990s - only about a quarter of comprehensive schools were genuinely comprehensive.

David Cameron is not planning to change this. The remaining grammar schools will stay. Places like Buckinghamshire will, it seems, be allowed to build new ones.

The "new" Conservative policy on grammar schools is a policy of maintaining the status quo - exactly as Labour's has been.

So what is all the fuss about?

Cameron's classroom takes shape
29 May 07 |  Education
Tory quits post over grammars row
29 May 07 |  UK Politics
Q&A: What are grammar schools?
16 May 07 |  Education

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