Grammar school nostalgia and Michael Gove’s quiet reforms

(C) Steve Punter

By Alex Bryan

Among some sections of the Conservative Party, and indeed amongst the population at large, it has become fashionable in recent years to respond to the news of a supposed falling of standards in British schools by calling for the return of grammar schools. Grammars, it is claimed, allowed poorer students the opportunity to get a good education, to get a good professional job, and to have a chance for a better life than they would otherwise have had.

There are many reasons to be sceptical of this one-sided view of the grammar school system. There is no denying it provided good opportunities for bright young children, but it did so at the expense of others. To select children academically at the age of eleven seems cruel, especially when those who fail have significantly fewer life chances as a result.

However, the point of this article is not to debate the merits of the grammar system, but the merits of the general consensus that it is a system that is more radical than the current educational system. The nostalgia for grammar schools is ingrained in the minds of many who attended them and a huge number who did not. Indeed, this is a problem for anyone seeking to analyse or compare the grammar system to any other; it was so divisive that there are practically no purely descriptive, non-evaluative accounts of it.

It seems however, that quietly, Michael Gove is establishing a new system of education in this country which, apart from the lack of cultural resonance, challenges the grammar school system in its radicalism. Those who pine for the grammar system should take note; the system they long for has passed, but the new system is slowly becoming a modern equivalent, a grammar system where the selection is no longer explicit.

The newest piece of educational reform to add to the list of reasons why this is the case is the news released on Friday that academy schools will from now be able to appoint teachers without qualified teacher status (QTS).

Add this to the fact that free schools can be set up by anyone (including groups with very questionable beliefs), the rise in tuition fees, the introduction of the English Baccalaureate and Michael Gove’s apparent quest to replace GCSE’s with O-levels, and it looks like the government is taking a very different approach to education than any other government since the introduction of the national curriculum in the 1980’s.

The defining aspect of this appears to be decentralisation. The introduction of the English Baccalaureate (and possibly O-levels) looks like a standard piece of micro-scale education reform, as does the insistence on learning British history and Latin. However, the free schools and academies project gives a huge degree of discretion to schools of what and how they teach. Academies alone now make up around half of all state secondary schools.

And herein lies the prospect of a two-tiered education system. The Government is obviously keen to make free schools and academies a success; it would therefore not be surprising that more time is put into making this happen than resolving the existing issues in regular state schools. The very enthusiasm for these alternative schools makes regular schools seem second rate in the eyes of many.

The idolisation for private schools has been a defining feature in education policy for many years, and the policies this government is implementing makes this even clearer. Free schools are essentially independent schools funded by the state; the state school system is slowly being transformed from a national prescriptive education system into a network of individual schools each theoretically competing for the best results. It is the implementation of a controlled, limited market for education.

There is no process of explicit selection involved in the current state education system, and this is perhaps what people really mean when they say that grammar schools should be reintroduced. But Michael Gove is not stupid; he knows that the Britain of 2012 is different from the Britain of 1962, and that selection in the way grammar schools used to do it is now irredeemably unpalatable in this country. The introduction instead of more vocational qualifications and styles of learning as well as the impending closure of many universities as a result of fee increases will mean that the system will soon result in a more noticable divide between those who go to university (doing traditionally academic subjects), and those who do not.

Whilst 20th century Grammars are never to return, it certainly seems as though the current educational policy is creating an education system as similar to it as is possible in the 21st Century. Those who see Grammar schools with a wistful eye would do well to look around them. Say it quietly, but this is truly an educational revolution.

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