Howard Croft column: Mixed feelings over the grammar school debate

Theresa May would like to see grammar schools re-introduced for all.
Theresa May would like to see grammar schools re-introduced for all.
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It is strange and rather unexpected, by me anyway, to hear and read about the possible resurrection of grammar schools more than half a century since the system was dismantled. It is, I suppose, about a decade and a half since their reintroduction was made illegal by the Blair government. I should declare an interest: I attended a grammar school, Hull Grammar School, from 1956 until 1963.

The current debate about grammar schools reveals that many, if not most of the participants do not really know what they are talking about. The history of my own school is typical, and curiously similar the that of Malton Grammar School given that my current home is the building that housed it until 1909.

Although many schools bore the name “grammar” for centuries before the Education Act of 1944 introduced the government’s “tripartite” scheme – grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. Such schools, usually of ancient foundation, were so called because they taught Latin, Greek and in some cases Hebrew and not much else. They were usually church chantry schools. Hull Grammar and Malton Grammar were founded in 1330 and 1547 respectively.

It is not for the return of schools such as these that the traditionalists and sentimentalists yearn, and which the modernists so much despise. It is the modern institutions, created in living memory and underpinned by the principle of selection through the eleven plus examination. My own school, although founded in the 14th century, became a grammar school as we now understand the term in 1944, ceased to be one in 1969 and disappeared after a brief period in “special measures” relatively recently.

The prize for the traditionalists is selection by intellectual ability/potential, and it is selection that the modernists so despise, and not all of them understand this. Also, the persistent confusion of equality of opportunity with equality of outcome, neither of which is achievable, is unhelpful.

My own experience supports both the pro-grammar and the anti-grammar positions. I grew up in East Hull, a poor and deprived area of a poor and deprived city, then as now, the child of sub-literate parents. I passed the 11+ – “won a scholarship” as we said then – and went to Hull Grammar school located five miles away at the other side of the city. Although I was far from being an ideal pupil, I received a decent education in what was for me a weird environment; not only did the teachers wear academic gowns, so did the prefects (we called them praeposters, a throwback to an earlier age), and grace was said in Latin.

In due course, I went to university and I subsequently enjoyed a successful and satisfying career in academic publishing. The 11+ did for me what Mrs May hopes its return will do for children living in relative poverty and she may be right, but there is no reason to suppose that those so helped will be any more numerous than in the fifties. I was one of a lucky few, but then as now the “good” schools, whatever they are called, were monopolised by the children of middle class parents who were supportive, motivated and connected.

The opposition of the majority of the teaching profession to selection is largely ideological, but I suspect that there is an element of self-interest. With selection among pupils comes inevitably selection among teachers. In the “good old days” teachers in grammar schools were almost entirely graduates, better paid and had greater job satisfaction and better prospects.

Had I been born ten years later I would have gone to the local comprehensive in the worst part of the city, a purpose-built establishment with over a thousand pupils. It quickly became a notorious place characterised by truancy, lawlessness and very high teacher turnover. At its opening the new headmaster said of Latin, “I will not have that snob subject taught in my school”. My future would have been very different.

However, unlike Mrs May I do not want to see the system from which I personally benefitted re-introduced. It may well raise academic standards, but only for the “top” twenty percent. It will not improve social mobility, any more than the comprehensives have. We need better schools and that might involve paying more to teachers working in deprived areas and inducing them to stay there for decent numbers of years, something else that teachers will oppose and have in the past when it has been suggested.

I was lucky in many ways, not least in having parents who, although having had precious little of it themselves, saw the value of education.