These days I find myself so drifting away from the bounds of acceptable opinion that I don’t even shout at Radio 4 for being biased, because I don’t even understand the basis of what the arguments are about.
Take this morning’s schools feature (occasioned by Sir John Major’s comments about the ‘truly shocking’ dominance of a privately educated elite in public life), in which Harry Mount argued in favour and Owen Jones against the motion that grammar schools lead to more social mobility than comprehensives.
It was a good debate, but then you might also ask, who cares if they do? Do grammar schools provide affordable, high quality education – that’s the question? If they do, then it shouldn’t matter whether social mobility is increased or decreased, because all sorts of factors outside the realm of education affect mobility.
As Peter Hitchens pointed out in The Broken Compass, the proportion of Oxbridge graduates who came from within the state system fell quite significantly after the last grammar-educated cohort entered in the early 1970s. The converse argument is that, as Tim Wigmore argued on Telegraph blogs, grammar schools tend to favour middle class pupils not the poor.
Middle-class children will always dominate selective schools because on average they come from more literate households, have more determined parents, more books around, and higher IQ. And the more selective a school is, the tinier the proportion of pupils on free school meals there will be.
Middle-class children are in every way privileged and no amount of educational social engineering is going to change that; that the subject of debate is still equality in education rather than quality (especially when Britain has slid so far down the educational ranks for literacy and numeracy) is just baffling.
In regards to grammars v comps, the problem was not so much comprehensive education as the way some schools were run from the 1970s, and the ethos of education, which began to reverse some time ago anyway under Blair; grammars probably push standards up, but the comprehensive system works in certain circumstances, depending on the population. But New York City adopting Finland’s education system is not going to make New York like Finland.
Yet the public debate still revolves around the idea that a school system can forge a society, despite repeated failures (even in the USSR the well-connected all sent their kids to elite schools). In the game of life the dice are loaded and trying to make teachers responsible for making life fair is deluded and unfair to them, and besides which, whatever system we have, it always favours the wealthy. I guarantee that in 50 years’ time the best schools and universities will still be dominated by the upper-middle-class, the children and grandchildren of today’s Oxbridge graduates, and Radio 4 will still be having the exact same debate, and again in another 50 years, until the ending of the world.
I’m beginning to think that West was right, that is the economist E G West (no relation, as far as I know) who concluded that before state education was made universal most people were pretty well-educated privately (as the emerging middle class in the developing world are today). Certainly one of the downsides of state education is that inevitably political ideas start to trump the primary purpose of schools, which is to educate people. So let’s just give parents a voucher for each of their children, and allow everyone to go private; it won’t have any impact on equality, but it will probably improve quality.