Many of us dislike the apartheid in UK education. If you are blessed with parents on good incomes, or with parents willing to make a large financial sacrifice, you have access to some of the best schools in the world, the top public schools. If you do not, you face a postcode lottery for how good your local state school will be. You may end up at a poor performing school, where ambition for pupils is low, and where there is no tradition of pupils successfully striving for excellence.
Of course there are weak or poor fee paying schools, and there are some excellent state comprehensive schools. It is not as simple a division as some class warriors would have us believe. Nor is it fair to suggest that all rich parents are great parents. They may not spare the time or offer the love and suppport children need, in addition to the money for the fees. Meanwhile socialists wrongly assume that all poor backgrounds mean disadvantage, when low income parents often do provide time, support, a framework of encouragement for their children which is so important. Allied to a good local state school, this can work well.
As we saw yesterday, the politicians have lighted on a definite social problem. Pupils from the great public schools do get a very high a proportion of the places available at top universities, implying there is some problem with the state schools on average in helping pupils pursue such ambitions.
The grammar schools fare better than the comprehensives. In one sense that is only to be expected, as they choose pupils most likely to qualify for elite universities. Grammars should produce a higher proportion of suitable candidates for top colleges. In another sense it is worrying. Comprehensives do not fare as well as grammars, when adjusted for the impact of selection. The Comprehensives in most parts of the country include the group who would otherwise have gone to grammars. Many comprehensives do not seem to provide the same back up to these able pupils as the grammars once did.
The left say that selection is wrong in principle. I find this difficult to understand. They seem to welcome academic selection at 18, accepting that only some should go on to university. They welcome selection based on ability and tests for sports academies, for music schools, for elite dance and arts establishments. They do not want to have quotas of disadvantaged footballers placed in every elite Premier league team, nor do they complain if young people have to jump through hoops of fire to compete in the Olympics. Their approach to selection is highly selective. More importantly they lived through 13 years of government with school selection at 11 or 13 based on parental income, as if this were in some way more just or acceptable than selection based on ability and work rate.
The Coalition government rightly says one of its prime tasks is to raise school standards. The Secretary of State is pulling various levers in his part of the government machine to try to get standards higher. Allowing selection by ability and work rate at 11 or 13 in the state sector would create many more opportunities for children without rich parents to get to a top university at 18. The UK’s best policy for social mobility, the grammar school, was largely ripped out.
The advocates of comprehensive education for all but the rich promised us more social mobility and better results. The truth is it has not happened. Could advocates of comprehensives explain why not? And could they refrain from just saying comprehensives do not get enough money per pupil, when they often get more per pupil than grammars. We have just lived through a generous era for public spending. Labour voted as much as it dared. Why did it not work?