Pupil Selection and Curriculum Content

Posted on 15-04-2012

If you want to make yourself enemies in education, probably the best way to do so is to have a decided opinion about grammar schools. They are a litmus test for a whole range of other political and educational beliefs, particularly those to do with equality and elitism.

For some people,  grammar schools are elitist institutions which restrict educational opportunity to a small, already-privileged minority. For others, they are a method for achieving high educational standards which benefit the whole of society. Then there is also what I will call the Andrew Neil thesis, after the documentary made by Neil about a year ago. His argument was that the grammar schools provided bright working-class and lower-middle class kids with a route to educational and career success. Far from being elitist and unfair institutions, they were actually engines of social mobility.

One of the most striking pieces of evidence for Neil’s thesis is the social background of UK Prime Ministers. Between the Eton-educated Alec Douglas-Home and the Fettes-educated Tony Blair, five successive UK Prime Ministers were from modest backgrounds and four were educated at grammar school. (I can’t work out if Callaghan’s school was a grammar or not. If you know please comment.) Tony Blair was born in 1953, was 11 in 1964 and the grammar schools started to be abolished in 1965. Demographically, it all lines up perfectly – the first privately educated PM for forty years was from the age cohort that had dwindling numbers of grammar school students. The Prime Ministers are obviously only the most striking example of this thesis. If you read Dominic Sandbrook’s brilliant histories of the post-war years then there are numerous examples of successful grammar school students in all walks of life. Indeed, Sandbrook goes so far as to claim that upper-class distaste of uppity grammar-school students was one of the factors that led to their abolition.

He notes that Tony Crosland, the Labour education secretary who abolished the grammar schools, was himself educated at Highgate School, and that ‘there was nothing quite like the condescension of the public schoolboy for his grammar-school equivalent.’ Sandbrook also says that ‘if he [Crosland] had attended a grammar school, like Wilson and Heath, or his friends and rivals Jenkins and Healey, he might have been less keen to abolish an institution that had manifestly succeeded in propelling bright pupils from modest backgrounds to the highest places in the land.’ (Sandbrook, White Heat, p.334).[i]

Margaret Thatcher herself made a similar point (oddly, after her time as the Education Secretary who abolished more grammar schools than any other): ‘People from my sort of background needed grammar schools to compete with children from privileged homes like Shirley Williams and Anthony Wedgwood Benn’ (John Campbell, The Grocer’s Daughter, location 8774).

So it seems like there is a lot of evidence for this. Bright working-class kids were and are being let down by a system which doesn’t develop them to their full potential. Private school kids get an easy ride and can dominate top jobs because there’s no competition. Social mobility stalls and the economy and society suffer.

But I wonder if something different isn’t going on here. The problem is that as the same time as the grammar schools were abolished, there was also a concerted move towards child-centred teaching methods and non-traditional curriculum content in the state sector. The grammar schools were mainly abolished between 65 and 76. It is harder to come up with a precise date for the turn to child-centred education – certainly there are signs of it in the Hadow Report of the 30s and I have blogged before about the more distant intellectual antecedents of these ideas. But I think that plenty of people would agree that the Plowden Report into Primary Schools in 67 had a very significant effect not just on primary schools but on everyone involved in education. It advocated a child-centred and enquiry-based approach to education.

It is equally plausible, therefore, that the decline in the number of state-school educated pupils in top jobs is down the abolition of traditional methods and content in the state sector. What if government had abolished selection at 11 but kept the rigorous grammar school curriculum in the new comps? Of course, there are those who will say that this isn’t possible. They will argue that the issue of selection and content are linked, and that you cannot offer rigorous content to all because it is only suited to the top 15 or 20%. Thus, abolition of selection is, by default, abolition of traditional content. Peter Hitchens makes this point clearly here.

But I disagree. After all, the striking thing about the success of many private schools is that whilst they select at 11 or 13 on the basis of ability, they are also selecting on the basis of parental wealth (notwithstanding varying numbers of academic scholarships). So they aren’t taking the best-performing 15 or 20% of the general population – they are taking the best-performing 15 or 20% of those who are able to pay. And yet they are still able to deliver an academic curriculum to all of those pupils. Plus, we have more and more research evidence that hard work and good teaching make more of a difference than we ever thought. Plus, we have international evidence that those countries who do the best on PISA do well in terms of both excellence and equality – that is, in these systems the pupils at the top do very well, but all the other pupils reach a very high minimum standard too.

So I would argue that the problem wasn’t the abolition of the grammar schools; the problem was the abolition of traditional content and pedagogy. Because the two changes happened at the same time, it’s hard to prove this one way or the other. But it is interesting that most of the debate about these issues tends to revolve around the issue of selection at 11. The issues of content and pedagogy, which have a good case to be as important, are not discussed nearly as much. Nearly everyone knows about grammar schools and the 11+. Many fewer have heard of the Plowden Report and discovery learning.

[i] I can’t possibly write a post about this without quoting Crosland’s famous words to his wife: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland.” Scottish education was not under his remit. Another interesting fact about Crosland is that later, as Shadow Environment spokesman, he opposed the nascent ecology movement on the grounds that environmentalists were ‘kindly and dedicated people, but were usally affluent and wanted to kick the ladder down behind them.’ (Sandbrook, State of Emergency, location 4283). Sandbrook notes the inconsistency.