This morning, not for the first (or the last) time, I had to be patiently reminded not to rant and rave at the radio while taking a shower. The trigger? The government’s announcement that it was bunging an extra 50 million quid at grammar schools that wanted to expand. It’s the ultimate zombie policy. Just when you think the 11-plus is, if not finally dead and buried, then at least quarantined, it’s rising from the grave once again.
What explains its survival? After all, the internet reliably informs me that there are plenty of ways to actually kill a zombie. By the same token, a quick search on Google and its pointy-headed sister site, Google Scholar, throws up decades worth of research that comprehensively debunks the claims of 11-plus fans that it improves aggregate outcomes and boosts social mobility. And this research has been replicated in more publicly accessible forums by blogs and thinktanks (even right-leaning thinktanks) and journalists, most obviously the indefatigable Chris Cook of the BBC.
The only explanation is a toxic combination of nostalgia and ideology that the Tory party (and its erstwhile outside toilet, Ukip) seems unable to shake off . This is in spite of the fact that it was a Conservative education minister, Edward Boyle, who effectively gave the green light for the replacement of grammars by comprehensives and one of his successors, Margaret Thatcher, who did little (although not, to be scrupulously accurate, nothing) to turn back the tide.
To realise quite how powerful the right’s faith in selective secondary education is, just think back to the last time it was seriously challenged from within. In May 2007, probably the high-water mark of David Cameron’s modernising phase as Tory leader, David (now Lord) Willetts, then the party’s shadow education secretary, tried telling it the truth in a speech to the CBI. “We must break free,” he said, “from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids … there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage; it does not spread it.”
The reaction? The Conservative party went nuts – especially after Cameron issued “a clear and uncompromising message to those who think they can perpetuate a pointless debate about grammar schools: we will never be taken seriously by parents and convince them we are on their side and share their aspirations if we splash around in the shallow end of the education debate”.
Things became even more heated when Cameron doubled down a couple of days later, declaring it was “completely delusional” to talk about building more grammars and claiming it was “a key test for our party. Does it want to be a serious force for government and change, or does it want to be a rightwing debating society muttering about what might have been?”
This proved too much for Graham Brady (now the well-respected chairman of the 1922 Committee, and one of my favourite Tories, but then an opposition frontbencher), who resigned his post in protest. At this point Cameron (characteristically, some might say) plumped for appeasement rather the proverbial “clause IV moment”. More grammar schools, it transpired, could be built in areas that still used the 11-plus exam if population increases required. Oh, and Willetts was pretty soon relieved of his responsibility for the education brief.
Hence where we are today, wasting yet more desperately needed cash on under 5% of the country’s secondary schools – schools that are pointlessly divisive, and which don’t do the job they are supposed to do even when it comes to social mobility.
The classic comeback, of course, to any such criticism is not to dispute the research, which demonstrates this beyond reasonable doubt. Instead it is to point out that people like me, who went to grammar schools, are pulling the ladder up with them, selfishly determined to deny others the chance to experience the supposedly glorious education were once lucky enough to receive themselves.
Ad hominem bullshit, of course. But, hey, what else is there when you’re defending the indefensible?