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Grammar schools aren’t egalitarian, but they beat private schools

November 4, 2016

Theresa May wants to let new grammar schools get built. For those who don’t know, grammar schools involve passing an IQ test called the eleven-plus which screens pupils just about to enter secondary school at the age of 11-12 for base intelligence.

Grammar schools are an old concept, from the time where education was divided into secondary moderns and grammar schools. Grammar schools collected those students who were considered to have higher potential, and secondary moderns picked up everyone else.

The obvious criticism of this system is that it made a tortured distinction between “intelligent” and “everyone else”. These days, we know there are many forms of intelligence and creativity.

We also know that comprehensive schools have the ability to provide a high quality education. The historical context and an increasingly egalitarian view of education – the most radical form of which involves dismissing alumni of private schools as posh toffs who are out of touch with the rest of Britain – means that people are uncertain as to why the PM wants to resurrect this old fossil of a system.

There has been an increase in ideological feeling that talent is nothing and effort is everything. If you try hard enough, you can do whatever you like. This mantra is helpful for galvanising people with a greater potential than they realise into doing their best, but unfortunately it is only a partial truth.

In reality, people really do have skills and talents in one direction or another, and provided they also work hard, their gift will give them a significant head start which is likely to mean that they finish first in their classes and career endeavours in the field.

This shouldn’t be a problem, given that everyone has some talents, and being “the best” is not a fixed concept, therefore should not be an overwhelming preoccupation for anyone. There are many top places for people within the middling band of “more than good enough”.

However, this neutral view that we do differ in terms of types of intelligence, and that “training” for the IQ test is not likely to bump it up more than about 3 points – not enough to make a significant difference – is unfashionable. The simple statement “talent counts” is enough to get you murderous looks on the liberal left.

But let’s consider for a moment the effect on a young person of being told that they should be able to do anything, as long as they try hard enough. If they don’t succeed at something because it is too difficult, their self-esteem might be baldy affected by pressure from teachers and guardians.

They might think they are being lazy, or have some fault in their character that stops them from being able to step up. Knowing about strengths and weaknesses takes the edge off this.

Contextual awareness is required, and an acknowledgement of individual differences. For every person, there is a happy medium between giving up prematurely, and busting a gut just for the sake of breaking even at a subject you have no particular interest in.

Having schools which privilege people of a higher IQ flags up a number of issues. How important is IQ for academic performance? Are state schools not good enough for people with a high IQ? Aren’t people with higher IQs naturally advantaged, without needing a leg up from society?

My own thinking than high IQ schools make most sense if they are directed towards academic subjects that definitely require a natural propensity towards mathematical thought, such as advanced physics.

What this doesn’t account for is the changing preferences of the students; if you wanted a more vocational job, such a school would not serve you. You might have more limited, less transferable skills in an ever-changing workplace; you might not necessarily gain more general knowledge, needed for careers in politics or complex social sciences like economics.

And if the grammar school was not geared towards academic pursuits, in what sense would it be different to a comprehensive – would it have better equipment, or more funding?

That would be a classic example of privileging people who already have the advantage. There’s a left-wing, right-wing difference, here; the right wing in Britain tend to want to foster individual strength, whereas the left wing favour group strength.

I’m on the Left, so my criticism is that when you privilege individuals, you may make strong leaders, but you run the risk of weakening the majority population.

In a democracy, having a couple of strong leaders counts for nothing if the general population are not educated enough to recognise that that’s what they’ve got, and keep acting out; rioting, making unreasonable demands, protest voting for inadvisable fringe parties, non-voting, ballot-paper-spoiling, or the worst of the lot – making poorly informed choices in a referendum.

In the final case, the strong leader and their strong team are powerless against the forces of propaganda that affect people who are not very knowledgeable and are not very critical – skills you learn in secondary school, running on to university, if you get the grades and motivation to go. It’s the same story throughout history; the leader who doesn’t take care of his peasants will be overthrown by a pitch fork.

That’s assuming that allowing grammar schools impoverishes comprehensive schools. It’s difficult to prove – there’s no particular reason why removing high IQ kids from comps and putting them in grammars should hurt comps, except that the average exam results are likely to fall, since the best and brightest who were pulling up the average have gone elsewhere.

Though they might not, necessarily; the eleven-plus was compulsory in the days of the secondary modern. These days it’s a matter of choice, and all sorts of things from friends, to area, to parental pressure or ideology to type-of-school prejudice will influence that decision.

The debate with private schools damaging the state schools has in large part to do with money flow. Private schools can pay a higher wage to the best teachers and therefore cream them off the state sector. But grammar schools are state schools, and may pay only a little more to increase competition – not that much more, being on the public purse and all.

Of course, if the teacher’s aren’t better, you could ask, again, what the point of a grammar school is, since that is just another way in which they are not different to comps. I have a nasty feeling that it might be something to do with keeping the smart kids away from the riffraff and bad influences, which I feel is not the most enlightened way of thinking about troubled kids.

Speaking of which, it is generally felt that area and family situation plays as big a part as any. My brothers and I were raised around the Epsom and Ewell area, Surrey, with a reputation for a string of decent secondary schools. The eldest went to a grammar, the middle one went to a comp, and I went to a “partially selective”, which means they had a quota of local kids / siblings and a set number of places for people who passed either eleven-plus or a music exam.

All our schools were fine. We all got good A level grades. We all went to university. We all studied social sciences / humanities degrees. We all got a 2:1. We all liked our schools well enough, but felt like our best development came from university, not secondary school. Probably, grammar school was wasted on my older brother, living among the best comprehensive schools and belonging to a middle class family.

The Conservatives talk about social mobility, and my brother’s story is not the one they have in mind. I’m not sure what they do have in mind, since as a rule it is middle class parents who push and prep their kids into grammar school.

It would be different if grammar schools were specifically for people from low-income families, but the right-wing are likely to think of that as an unfair advantage – despite the fact that it is supremely unlikely to advantage the working classes over the middle classes, due to the myriad of other important factors – so would never agree to that.

There is a fear that this widens the education gap between rich and poor. However, it should be noted that the chance that middle class kids might be advantaged by grammar schools pales in comparison to the certainty that they are advantaged by private schools.

Between the two, grammar schools at least provide a near guarantee that someone with an IQ in the 70th percentile will get in, whatever their socioeconomic status, provided they’ve a mind to take the exam.

I would rather have an egalitarian system of education, but I can understand how the number of sub-par comprehensive schools makes people anxious that talent and potential is being lost before it can blossom. Insomuch as society actually favours partially weighted systems, the semi-meritocracy of grammar schools beats the straightforward class hierarchy of private schools any day.

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