Re-introducing grammar schools, or academic selection for children aged 11, has rivalled Brexit as the main political talking point this summer. Last week, on the same day Theresa May’s proposals were finally confirmed, my daughter took the 11-plus exam, or ‘Kent Test’ as it’s known locally. We’d spent months preparing for the big day and that morning she hugged me a little tighter than usual and bravely fought back tears. Fortunately, she pulled herself together for the test and has, I’m pleased to report, been dining out on her efforts ever since with pizzas, sleepover parties and ritual book burnings.
At the moment, Kent is one of only a handful of places in the UK that has selective secondary schools, a throwback to the educational beliefs of a bygone era. Some, like the school my sons attend, date back centuries. The nostalgia currently driving government policy is for something comparatively more recent: the grammar schools brought into existence by the 1944 Education Act. This legislation enshrined the right of all children to secondary education through a tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary-modern schools. In reality, few technical schools existed and, for most children, success or failure in the 11-plus led to roughly 20 per cent of each age group attending grammar schools, where pupils enjoyed a traditional academic curriculum, while the majority attended secondary moderns, where pupils received lessons considered more ‘relevant’ to their future lives.
Grammar schools did not take off in earnest until after the Second World War. Academic selection epitomised education policy of the 1950s, but was already being called into question by the end of that decade. In 1965, the then Labour education secretary, Anthony Crosland, issued a circular requesting the closure of grammar schools. But it was Margaret Thatcher, a few years later, who, as education secretary, introduced an unprecedented number of comprehensive schools, where children of all abilities would be educated together.
Grammar schools are a product of a particular and very short-lived era. Their existence was premised on two fundamental assumptions; first, a conviction that intelligence was innate, differently distributed throughout the population and measurable through a simple test; and, second, a belief in the value of a classical liberal education. The continued fondness for grammars is driven for the most part by their perceived connection to social mobility. In the 1950s, a small number of bright kids from poor families did indeed have their life chances transformed by education. But, again, this needs to be placed in the context of the time. The era of grammar schools coincided with a period of economic growth, when more ‘middle-class’ and better paid jobs were being created. Academic selection may have determined who filled those jobs, but it did not bring them into existence.
However much May and a section of the Conservative Party may wish it were otherwise, the 1950s cannot be legislated back into existence, and neither can grammar schools. Of course, selection based on exam performance can be reintroduced, but even here the differences between the cultural attitudes of the 1950s and today are striking. Nowadays, parents and teachers alike are quick to bemoan the pressure children are put under at school. A few months ago, some parents kept their children off school for a day for a ‘kids’ strike’ in protest at the stress of testing. When children are considered to be so vulnerable to mental-health problems, a high-stakes, pass-or-fail test for 10-year-olds takes on a far greater significance than it would have done in the past.