In a later blog, Peter Hitchens cites Northern Ireland as one of the few places left where there is not a ‘post code’ lottery for ‘good schools’. Here he argues that socially aspirant Londoners have been moving to Kent and Buckinghamshire in order to gain access to the region’s remaining state funded Grammar schools…
That is why it is so unfair that only the well-off can pay fees. In the 1960s the mid-range private schools were dying, losing pupils to the grammar schools. Now, even a bad private school can look good in the league tables because far too few state schools are any good, and many of those that are good are harder to get into than the most exclusive club you care to name. It wasn’t always like this. Just 40 years ago, in this country, there were thousands of high-quality schools which didn’t charge fees. Most of them were Grammar Schools (in Scotland, Academies). There were also Direct Grant schools, private schools which took a large block of pupils from the local state primary system. The parents of the children involved didn’t pay fees at all.
As a result, many children from less well-off homes got a first-rate education. Alan Bennett’s an example. His father was a Co-op Butcher, but he got to Oxford, with no special measures to help him. Many, many Labour MPs benefited in the same way. In fact, in the mid-1960s the grammar schools were taking over Oxford and Cambridge, even though they weren’t specially-equipped (as the good private schools were) to deal with the classical subjects needed in the entrance exams that Oxbridge then held.
Nobody is saying that the system of 40 years ago was perfect. The 11-plus exam was too arbitrary. Germany has a selective system without any such exam. There were too few grammar schools. Many more could have been built at a fraction of the cost of going comprehensive. There were too few grammar places for girls. More should have been created. The Secondary Moderns, to which 11-plus failures went, were often not as bad as is now claimed – and in many cases better than the comprehensives of today – but badly needed improving. There were supposed to be technical schools, but they often hadn’t been built. They should have been. But whatever was wrong, it was absurd to destroy the one part of the system that actually worked, like amputating a healthy leg and leaving the diseased one in place.