On the virtues of Grammar school education…

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.


  • Hmm…

    Kent? Obviously they haven’t yet noticed that they’d be better off moving over to Belfast 🙂 You can probably get into Central London quicker from here too…

  • Greenflag

    Or maybe they should have moved to Fermanagh and not gone to university at all at all and become instead like Sean Quinn -Ireland’s latest ‘billionaire ‘:)

  • John East Belfast

    “There were too few grammar schools. Many more could have been built at a fraction of the cost of going comprehensive”

    Surely the logic of that is to do away with comprehensives and make all schools Grammar?

  • Reader

    JEB: Surely the logic of that is to do away with comprehensives and make all schools Grammar?
    Thereby delivering the wrong education for both the individual pupils and the economy? It has been decreed that the Nu Labour aspiration is to have 50% of people university educated, presumably on the basis that such a figure is right for a modern service/whitecollar economy. The numbers of Polish plumbers and builders around these days suggests maybe that 50% is aiming too high, but the number of Grammer school places shouldn’t be much different from the university entrance figures. 100% would be too much, and 25% seems to be too few.

  • Hmm…

    ‘but the number of Grammar school places shouldn’t be much different from the university entrance figures.’

    Eh, I don’t think so. Passing the 11+ doesn’t necessarily make you university material (nor does failing necessarily disqualify you).

    I’d add to that, that A level success doesn’t necessarily translate into success at university level. Plenty of students who get into the top unis come away with bad degrees, while the best students at less glamorous institutions can be as good as the best students at the top schools. A level success is not the last word in educational acheivement.

  • Mick Fealty


    “A level success is not the last word in educational achievement”.

    There is definitely both a falling away from and moving towards success at different qualification levels.

    That is something rarely noted in these kinds of debate… About ten years ago Bristol University deliberately modulated the entrance requirements for students, and used other criteria to identify potential successful university level students.

  • Hmm…

    Yes, I recall the howls of protest from the usual suspects that Bristol was resorting to social engineering and giving places to the unworthy, when it was pretty obvious that they were merely looking for a wider range of measures of ability.

  • Null hypothesis watch: Londoners have been moving to Kent and Buckinghamshire for as long as there have been railways. Specifically, they may be moving there because those are two of the biggest housing expansion areas in the southeast, and both have recently had significant transport upgrades – the Networker trains and power upgrades, plus CTRL, in Kent, the WCML upgrade and the A41(M) in Bucks.

  • Reader

    Hmm: Passing the 11+ doesn’t necessarily make you university material
    Neither does a New Labour diktat make 50% of the population into university material. But since those numbers are demanded, Grammer school placements should aim to prepare people to start on the process of being media studies students, or whatever. But I would certainly hope that there will be crossovers as people move through, or from, secondary education. I saw it happen in the 70’s. And let’s have technical colleges and some 6th Form colleges too.

  • Aaron McDaid

    What does ‘best’ mean? If I have a thick child, I want to send him/her to a school specialising in getting the most out of thick children. I would want to keep him/her away from the schools for the academically successful students. The problem is we don’t seem to have many schools that are good for thick kids. We have grammars which can get the best out of the brightest, and sink comprehensives which do no good to anybody.

    Because of this, the only reasons parents of thick kids want to get them into grammar schools is:
    1) they don’t realise their kid is thick.
    2) comprehensives don’t do anybody any good, so a grammar is the only hope of a half-decent education.

    i.e. There’s no intrinsic reason why parents want their kids sent to grammars, it’s simply because many comprehensives are just rubbish at doing what they are supposed to do.

    The 11 plus is a red herring, as are grammar schools. The only problem here is that many comprehensives are just plain rubbish. We need to fix them so that parents of the less able kids are actually happy to get them in because they know they’ll get the best out of the child compared to the more academic school.

    PS: Substitute your own PC term for ‘thick’ if you please.

  • Greenflag

    Well said Aaron McDaid 🙂

    It’s a fact of life that not all children are academically inclined . Nor is a college education the right choice for everybody. People learn in different ways . Some of the cleverest ,smartest and wealthiest people in Ireland today never went to University . I know some who firmly believe that had they gone to university they would never have achieved as much as they did in life .

    University university a necessary requirement
    It certainly helps to shorten
    The time until ‘retirement’

    Or it used to anyway 🙂