Mind Your Grammar

“Nowhere on the Continent can Compare to Cornwall”, “James Blonde: Why Hiring Boris Johnson as Head of MI6 is Great for Britain” and “The other big Rio winner… Tory values. Team GB’s medal haul is proof of the belief that hard work and dedication lead to success”. All those foolish foreign athletes pursuing a strategy of apathy and torpor – ha! No, these are not spoof headlines from the Daily Mash, but blog posts from Toby Young.

Toby Young’s notable contribution to the world, aside from those blogs of course, was to set up the West London Free School, to inculcate in young minds the sorts of values he espouses in his blogs… and to teach 21st century urban youth Greek, Latin, competitive sports, a revisionist interpretation of World War I and proper, old school grammar. However, Toby found it was harder than he thought to run a school (he appears not to have entertained the possibility that he isn’t as good as he thinks he is) so he gave it up. There are very few people I really don’t like and when I don’t my default is to think that the problem is to do with me, not them. But with Toby Young it’s not me, it’s him. Still, I know life hasn’t all have been a bed of roses for Toby; after all, Mr and Mrs Young chose to name their child after either a jug or a carvery.

Actually, I’ve never met the man and I’m basing my words on his TV appearances, which probably isn’t the best way to go about things. But, either way, you’ll be wondering, at this point, what strange medication I have been taking and/or what this blog is all about. Well, although Toby had an epiphany about the difficulty of running a school it hasn’t dampened his views on education and, specifically, grammar schools. And grammar schools, if reports are to be believed, are coming back. Very much unlike her predecessor, Teresa May went to one (which, interestingly, changed to a comprehensive while she was there).

Are grammar schools a good idea? First, I have to ‘fess up. My two oldest children passed the selection test, the 11+, and go to state grammar schools. My other two will also take the 11+.  So I declare up front a potential conflict of interest. As a parent, my views are my views. However, to put it mildly, the evidence that grammar schools are good for education is decidedly mixed. They don’t seem to encourage social mobility, and actually may act as a hindrance given the alienating effects of failure on selection. There’s more on the debate here: In brief, the aggregate results do not differ between areas with comprehensive education and those with a selective system.

There’s also a more pernicious consequence of grammar education and, particularly, the idea of selection on the basis of an intelligence test at 11 years of age. My friends and colleagues, Yvonne Skipper and Karen Douglas have described how primary school children taking the 11+ in Kent could suffer damaging psychological and possibly damaging effects in the aftermath.

One of the chief aims of education should be to ensure opportunity for all because that is the best way to realise the potential of young people for a happy and successful future. Sure, people are different, have different abilities, or are better suited to some occupations than others. But “natural ability rarely reveals itself at 11 years of age.  Child prodigies do not have a great track record for continuing success into adulthood! At 11 children’s intelligence and knowledge of themselves is still developing. A message, at that age, that you don’t make the cut doesn’t mean a future of inevitable failure but it certainly adds in obstacles and hence limits opportunity.

Toby Young’s view, and of course it appeared in The Spectator, is not that there aren’t enough grammar schools, but that they’re not selective enough. He favours “super” grammar schools where only a small proportion of pupils in a local authority (say 5%) are selected. (In fact, such schools already exist in a few places.) That seems to be the worst of all worlds – uber-selection, which will simply create a smaller elite and, even if you agree that selection is beneficial, restrict even more opportunities than a higher (say 20%) threshold. All the problems of lack of opportunity, essentialism and elitism are compounded and, of course, the schools will still be dominated by children from upper middle class background who were tutored for the 11+. And, Toby, I don’t know, and no one can prove it, but maybe it’s at least as hard to run a nation’s education system as it is to run West London Free School. And you weren’t up to that. They are all extremely taxing and difficult jobs.

Our education system sets the template for our society in the future. Children are all inquisitive and pick up on how society justifies its social institutions and education system and understand themselves through their position in it. (By the way, we’ve just finished the draft and the wonderful Harriet Tenenbaum and I are going to publish a paper on that very soon!)  What do we want? One that divides, classifies, and segregates on misplaced views of ability and intelligence? One that, de facto, limits opportunity? That’s socially unjust and bad economics and can never create the future world we (well, maybe most of us) want.