Behind the turmoil of the current news agenda, something is stirring at the Independent. The editor Chris Blackhurst, by background a mainly financial journalist, has come out in favour of grammar schools – but without the 11 plus. Mary Anne Sieghart’s column was not a one-off. This is interesting because the Independent positions itself as a freethinking paper outside the party political box. More often it tilts centre leftwards than centre right. Its closest bedfellow among the UK parties is of course the Lib Dems who don’t always find it easy to reconcile their social liberalism with their economic free market liberalism. Here is Blackhurst giving personal testimony in favour of the grammar school experience to promote stalled social mobility.
That state-taught conveyor belt has all but ceased. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has admitted as much, complaining of the dominance of private schools over public life. Nick Clegg has said much the same in a plea for greater social mobility, pointing out that 70 per cent of High Court judges and 54 per cent of FTSE 100 CEOs were educated in the independent sector.
The arguments for and against selection are well rehearsed. On the positive side, grammar schools promoted academic excellence and meritocracy. They gave places to bright pupils from poorer families. Negatively, the entry criteria could be unjust. It was based on performance in a single set of exams and was open to abuse, with the better-off, pushier parents hiring coaches.
While some working-class children made it through, the grammar schools were heavily skewed in favour of those from the wealthier parts of town. Those who didn’t make it saw themselves as failures, not so good, consigned to a different, inferior path, often resorting to apologising later for having gone to an “ordinary secondary mod”.
I would not wish to see a return to the delivery of an envelope that represented terrible finality at the tender age of 11. But new grammar schools for which the cleverest are pared off but with genuine opportunities for entry at 13, 15 and in the sixth form would begin to fill that gaping hole. Accompany them, too, with technical, vocation-based schools for the less academic but practically minded.
The arguments are well rehearsed in Slugger. Selection at 11, bad: choice at 14, good? Is it time to give Craigavon’s Dickson plan another rattle to try to shake the Executive out of its deadlock? Can they be pressurised to turn the lip service of two years ago into any kind of action?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London