When Gordon Brown entered Downing Street for the first time as Prime Minister he talked about the excellence of the education he received at Kirkcaldy High School in Fife. He even invoked the school motto – "I will try my utmost" – and claimed: "I wouldn’t be standing here without the opportunities I got there."
Some in Scotland detected a massive hypocrisy in these words. His grammar school might have given him – and many like him – the opportunity to get on in life but that had not stopped Brown being in the vanguard of Scottish socialists who wanted to abolish every grammar school in the country. They succeeded: state education today in Scotland is a comprehensive monopoly.
That would seem to have taken its toll on educational excellence, say critics, even in Brown’s old elite grammar. According to today’s Scotland on Sunday, Brown’s alma mater (now a comprehensive) is no longer giving its pupils the sort of opportunities he enjoyed.
"Earlier this month," reports the paper "the school, which was previously regarded as a beacon of academic excellence, was branded one of the most underachieving in Scotland, prompting education officials to draft in a troubleshooter.
"Despite the 1,300-pupil school being ordered to address declining standards in 2006, a new follow-up report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education (HMIE) criticised the school for poor exam results, low staff morale and disruptive behaviour among pupils. Overall truancy levels were twice the Fife average and four times the Scottish average."
It certainly wasn’t like that in Brown’s day, when the school was one of many Scottish grammar schools which gave pupils from ordinary backgrounds an education rigorous enough to allow them to compete as equals with those who went to expensive private schools, which Brown duly did when he went to Edinburgh University and more than held his own against privately-educated students.
His old school doesn’t seem to provide that sort of opportunity any more. Scotland on Sunday reports that "now Kirkcaldy High is being used as the focus of a high-profile campaign to stop youngsters bringing knives to class and the school has a dedicated police officer. Lunches sold in the canteen are now branded with the slogan: ‘Knives Cut Lives’.
"In a move that would have been unthinkable during Brown’s schooldays, pupils are being issued with the mobile number of the school policeman so he can be summoned quickly in the event of trouble."
There is much talk these days about the decline of social mobility. Brown’s old school might provide a case study on why it is so. There is also lots of comment about the return of the public school boy to positions of prominence in society, with David Cameron and Boris Johnson being the two most obvious examples, when for two generations after the second world war grammar school pupils swept all before them.
Those who regret the demise of the grammars pose this question: if you destroy the centres of educational excellence for bright kids from ordinary backgrounds, but keep those which are reserved largely for children who have well-off parents, why would you be surprised if public school kids started grabbing all the glittering prizes once more? The Prime Minister, who took a special satisfaction in the destruction of the grammars when he was younger, might like to ponder the answer to that question as he dips his toast into his boiled egg this morning. He might even shed a tear for what has happened to an institution to which, in his own words, he owes so much.