Long time reader and occasional contributor Watchman lays out the case against planned reformation of the local education system in Northern Ireland. He argues that merit is part of every aspect of life and that trying to dumb down the education system is a trick that only works against the poorer parts of society. Indeed he calls it a form of “arrogant egalitarian bigotry”.By The Watchman
“This Order will not only see an end to the 11-plus exam as a means of deciding a child’s future, but will also end all forms of selection by academic ability.”
These words of Peter Hain prove beyond doubt that the target of the government’s education reforms is academic selection. Commentators often point to the alleged rightward drift of New Labour, but Hain personifies the worst kind of pig-headed arrogant egalitarian bigotry. He rides roughshod over those who fear for their children’s future, on the votes of Labour MPs unaccountable to anyone in Northern Ireland. His ideological class warriors are ready to implement what has been shown to fail disastrously in Great Britain. The rest of this essay is about the de-education of modern Britain
and the resulting problems that are about to hit Northern Ireland.
At the heart of the matter is a simple question. If selection by merit is part of every walk of life (except perhaps with appointment to the NIO), why is it so unacceptable in education?
The grammar schools in Great Britain – why they were wrecked
In his brilliant polemic The Abolition of Britain, Peter Hitchens says:
“Proper education is a fundamentally conservative activity, based on the assumption that a body of knowledge exists, is in the hands of the adult and educated, and can be passed on in measurable ways, by disciplined learning reinforced with authority. Since the Left in Britain have never reconciled themselves to authority – monarchical, aristocratic, religious, traditional and ancient, their attitude towards the inherited education system remains instinctively, automatically revolutionary.”
Britain in the 1960s, with its resurgent socialism and a craven Conservative Party, was ripe for change. Grammar schools were unashamedly elitist, although the 11-plus opened them up to those from modest backgrounds. They were based upon a common sense proposition: since people differ in ability and motivation, some people will always do better than others. Selective education recognised human society as it was and never confused equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. The system was not perfect. The 11-plus brutally divided children into just 2 categories and did not allow
for different rates of child development. Technical and vocational education was treated as second best and never fostered elitism of its own. But no better means of social mobility in Britain has ever been discovered.
The social revolutionaries of the left were determined to sweep away selective schooling because it was an obstacle to the egalitarian society they wished to see created. But they also loathed other features of grammar schools:
* Great public schools like Rugby and Harrow were role models for the grammars. Hitchens describes English public schooling as “more or less religious in a traditional way, instinctively monarchist and based upon tradition and deference”. The grammar schools, he argues, modelled their “ethos, timetable and shape” on them. Accordingly, the grammars provided a means of transmitting conservative values to young people, something anathema to the left, which wanted to separate the young from the values of their elders.
* Grammar schools also enshrined hierarchical relationships between teacher and pupil, in terms of strict discipline, traditional teaching of facts to a whole class and learning by heart or by rote. Progressive educationalists thought that impeded a child’s creativity.
* Finally, grammar schools provided a vehicle for working class children to join the middle classes. Of course, this notion was repugnant to a British left that detested the bourgeois “Victorian values” traditionally associated with the middle class.
So grammar schools were abolished, allegedly to improve the prospects of children in the underperforming secondary modern sector. If the fate of such children had driven reform, the logical course would have been to change only the failing schools. But educational standards were of limited interest to the revolutionaries. They wanted to have their levelled-down society. Today, the failings of comprehensive education are too big to be ignored. Social mobility has decreased to Edwardian levels.
One in five pupils leave school after 11 years of compulsory education functionally illiterate, sometimes defined as being unable to find a plumber in the Yellow Pages. Public examinations no longer distinguish the brightest and best from the rest. Universities are leaned upon to discriminate against applicants from private schools on the spurious basis that such applicants have an “unfair advantage”.
Why it is the poor who lose out from comprehensives
Comprehensive education, like all egalitarian notions, could work in an ideal world. But egalitarianism always fails because (a) it neglects human nature and (b) the world is not and can never be perfect.
The progressive left may be wedded to comprehensive education, but it is also uncomfortably aware of the need to keep its own offspring out of failing schools. Hypocrisy rules. Its parents use religious affiliation to get their children into a well-regarded church school (like the Blairs); move to an affluent catchment area of a good school and pay for the schooling in house prices; or swallow their principles and send their children to a private school.
But then all good parents try to pass on their economic position within society to their children and use their income to manipulate the state school system to their advantage, should their children remain within it. Government can decree that all children in the state sector should go to schools with a comprehensive intake, but it cannot circumvent the ingenuity of ambitious parents.
But if the prosperous can manage, there is less good news for those from more modest backgrounds who would have been the real winners from the grammar school system. Since their parents cannot usually move in search of a good comprehensive, the children are often consigned to the worst schools with little prospect of advancement.
Critics of grammar schools often complained (accurately) that grammars were predominantly and disproportionately middle class. But a grammar school could still provide a wide social mix of pupils, certainly in comparison to English comprehensives where middle class children often go to one school in the suburbs and working class children go to another in the inner city. If children cannot be divided by academic ability, they will be categorised by other means.
A Way Out
The time has come to move on from the left’s hang-ups about academic selection. Selection simply opens up access to elites by meritocrats. Selection and reward of talent are essential to private wealth creation, which is central to a nation’s prosperity. There is no time for delay. Many Third World countries in the Far East are moving into the First World at great speed. Those still convinced of the superiority of Britain’s education system should ask why, if our schooling is so good, it is not being emulated. The British political and educational classes may be in denial but hungry tiger economies see our inadequacies all too clearly. India, for instance, is enjoying a boom in independent schools, many of which work towards exams at least as rigorous as old English O and A Levels.
But we need other elites as well as academic ones. There could be a variety of schools: academic, vocational, technological, music or sports-orientated. There could be multiple entry and exit points to ensure that children who develop at a slower pace can move between streams. The detail is less important than the principle: that selection is not merely defensible but essential for a thriving modern market economy. Yet, as Robert Yates recently wrote in The Spectator:
“(O)ur leading political parties appear to agree that there is something fundamentally wrong with telling a bunch of ten year old that some are more academically able than others at the moment. Elsewhere, selection on ability seems simply logical; whether you’re learning to ski or taking classes in bricklaying, you find your level. But schooling, it seems, has a logic all of its own, one that would have amused my old teacher. ‘It might make sense in another world …,’ ran his favourite put-down when our thoughts were a little scrambled. ‘But it makes no sense in this one.’”
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty