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Sunday, 5 March 2006
Teaching grammar to suck eggs

I was once in a café somewhere in North London. They were very short staffed, and the waitresses were rushed off their feet but doing their best to cope.

A prominent left wing intellectual tore a strip off one poor girl, who, through no fault of her own, was a little late with his order. When she explained that they were short staffed, he roared imperiously that it was not his problem and that she should damn well do what she was paid for.

It seems that his principles of working class solidarity faded when confronted with a real 'prole'.

I cannot name the prominent left wing intellectual in case they are reading this - unlikely as they may be engaged in pursuits of an even more intellectual or left wing nature than are to be found here. However, if anyone wants to know, just email me.

I was reminded of this incident when reading the Sunday Telegraph Opinion Page. If only our politicians showed one fraction of the common sense of those who write for The Telegraph:

It is an irony that many of the questions junior doctors must answer when they fill in the new form to apply for hospital jobs relate to their leadership skills and ability to work as part of a team. The form is part of a new applications procedure, called Modernising Medical Careers (MMC), which involves no human interaction whatsoever. Hospitals are banned from holding interviews, having to rely instead upon a computer "dating" system that supposedly matches the applicant to the job.

Department of Health, the results have been disastrous. Sixty junior doctors recruited in this way have failed to demonstrate a basic level of medical competence, while many others have had to be retrained at huge expense. Some successful east European recruits turned out not to speak English, while 600 well-qualified British students have been left without jobs at all, leaving them unable to complete their training. No checks have been made, so it seems, on the information that applicants put on the forms. Moreover, in the absence of an interview, there is no way hospitals can be sure whether the applicant is a genuine, qualified medical student or whether they are an impostor who paid someone to fill in their form for them.

Substitute "pupils" for "junior doctors" and "schools" for "hospitals" and you have another selection system heading for failure: the new "admissions code" that schools will be obliged to follow should the Education Bill get onto the statute book. Schools, too, will be banned from interviewing their prospective pupils. Not only will they be forbidden from selecting pupils on academic merit; an army of bureaucrats will be employed to check that schools are not inadvertently selecting on ability.

According to the Government, the systems for selecting school pupils and junior doctors have both been devised in the name of fairness. They are both part of a grand scheme of social engineering designed to iron out inequality. Unless you allocate medical jobs by computer, goes the argument, consultants will inevitably give in to their own prejudices. Likewise, give schools the freedom to select on academic ability, the Government asserts, and the best schools will fill up with middle class children.

The main effect of outlawing grammar schools has been to deny clever children from poor backgrounds the chance to excel at academic work and to go on to take well-paid jobs. A study by the London School of Economics recently showed that Britain has become markedly less socially mobile since the advent of comprehensive education. It is the absence of academic selection which leads to a class divide: because when schools cease to select their pupils on the grounds of intelligence they end up selecting them on their parents' intelligence and financial means.

Of course. This was obvious right from the start. Socialists have never been in favour of meritocracy, however, preferring working class people, or indeed ethnic minorities, to stay in their ghettos where they can be patronised. I have often wondered whether this partially explains the anti-Semitism of some parts of the Left. Jews are an ethnic minority who do well for themselves and refuse to play the victim. The Left cannot patronise them as they can other minority groups.

My home town clung onto grammar schools longer than most. Little did I realise at the time how fortunate I was in my education. The ladder of opportunity for social mobility was there for only a short time. My old school is now fee-paying. My place would now go to someone less deserving whose parents could afford the fees. Another comparable grammar school in the same town went comprehensive and is now quite mediocre. I am saddened and sickened at the unfairness of it - clever children trapped in their ghettos in the name of equality.

Nick Cohen touched on grammar schools in an article in the New Statesman, in which he also makes some interesting general points about the hostility of the Left toward social mobility. The article is short, and worth reading in full.

...But here's what is odd: a child born into the Britain of Harold Macmillan and his dukes and earls in 1958, who turned 35 in 1993, will have been far more likely to have broken away from his class and pursued a career that reflected his talents than a child born in 1970 who is 35 today. Far from being a meritocracy, Britain has become a country of castes. The children of the rich are rich when they grow up. The children of graduates graduate themselves and the children of the working and lower middle classes sink ever further into financial and intellectual impoverishment....

As the saying goes, the right won the economic war and the left won the cultural war; and it is in the confusions of liberal-dominated cultural life that the second set of reasons for middle-class dominance can be found.

I have written this piece as if social mobility and careers open to talent were desirable, but in the 20th century the left was far from sure that they were. The classic case against was put by Michael Young in his Rise of the Meritocracy, published in 1958. His point was that a society where the rich believe they have earned their money and the poor believe that their poverty is their own fault would be intolerable. Better to have an aristocracy that feels guilty about its luck and poor people who can blame the toffs for their poverty.

Young's ideas helped bring about the abolition of the grammar schools. The comprehensive cause was taken up as enthusiastically by many Tories as by Labour, for the sound class reason that if you combine a comprehensive state system with a selective private system - as Britain and America do - you have the rich parents' dream. If their children are bright, they go to a good private school. Competition for places is fierce, but limited by the parents' ability to pay. If their children are clots, their wealth can still be decisive because they can afford to move into the catchment areas of the best comprehensives. Either way, money talks, and poor but talented children are confined to the worst schools.

The unintended consequences of educational egalitarianism would not have mattered so much if they did not combine with wider cultural changes which were profoundly hostile to the working class. At the end of his Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Jonathan Rose asked why 200 years of cultural self-improvement through libraries, lectures, schools and newspapers organised by and for the working class died in the 1960s. His conclusion was that the supposedly egalitarian assault on the "dead white men" of the classics increased middle-class privilege. When there was agreement on what the canon was and that, say, you couldn't be educated without knowing Shakespeare, it was relatively easy for the self-taught to catch up. Since the 1960s, cultural trends have had "as brief a shelf-life as stock-exchange trends, and they depreciate rapidly if one fails to catch the latest wave in architecture or literary theory". Avant-garde, advanced, progressive, le dernier cri, new wave, modernist, postmodernist - all, argues Rose, "reflect the Anxiety of Cool, the relentless struggle to get out in front and control the new production of new cultural information".

Each new wave carries high culture further away from the working class. Once, the middle-class left saw the workers as the very vanguard of history; now they are dismissed as sexist, racist and conservative. Rose searched a database of academic books published between 1991 and 2000. He got 13,820 hits for "women", 4,539 for "gender," 1,826 for "race", 710 for "post-colonial" and a piddling 136 for "working class".

It shouldn't be too great a surprise that the humble do not care about education and that they regard intellectual life as alien, when the educated care so little for them. 

Some of the hostility of the Left to working class advancement is straightforward snobbery.  The waitress mentioned above may well have been a student working her way through university, struggling to make up for the deficiencies of her comprehensive education while the children of the Hampstead champagne socialists went to private school. Grammar schools enabled talented children to break through the ranks. Unsurprisingly, the Hampstead lefties want those ranks closed again. And they have succeeded. 

Posted on 03/05/2006 6:48 AM by Mary Jackson
6 Mar 2006
Esmerelda Weatherwax
Mary Exactly my point. It was hard enough to get on to further education with a grammar school foundation. Without it I am sure I would not have succeeded.

6 Mar 2006
Send an emailMary Jackson
I didn't say that the grammar school system was perfect, but just that it did offer an escape route, via a good education, to children whose parents could not afford school fees or the price of a house near a good comprehensive. Of course most children in grammar schools will be from middle class homes, where there are books and where parents care about education. This is true of good comprehensives. But there are many examples of poor children, not from these backgrounds whom grammar schools benefited. Taking this opportunity away was a vindictive and destructive act.

6 Mar 2006
Send an emailLopakhin
You say that grammar schools gave poor bright kids the best chance in life, but I wonder how that fits in with the evidence from the grammar schools that still exist in places like Kent. Sean French in the New Statesman did an article a few years ago pointing out that the proportion of their pupils who received free school meals, which is a good indicator of poverty, is a lot lower than the average for the schools in their area. See i.e. what this means is that the middle classes were overwhelmingly managing to get their kids into the grammar schools somehow or other. I suppose a left-winger might attribute the decline the LSE noted in social mobility to other factors, say, the impact of Thatcherism. Btw you mention Michael Young. Seems to me that the caricature of someone who was against social mobility is belied by his role in, for instance, setting up the Open University.

5 Mar 2006
Send an emailMary Jackson
Quite. Equality of outcome and equality of opportunity are incompatible. Some people are just cleverer than others.

5 Mar 2006
Send an emailJohn Palubiski
Good posting! Perhaps the champagne socialists hope to preserve and reinforce their class position by denying chances of advancement to prolos. Nothing is about good and bad or "better and worse", anymore. In fact, ALL morality, the "good", as it were, is now merely that which redresses a PERCIEVED imbalance in "power structures" The promotion and encouragement of pupils with above average academic abilitties simply doesn't serve that aim. So we end up with equality, but an equality in which many school students are dumber than sack of hammers.

5 Mar 2006
Send an emailEsmerelda Weatherwax
I would not be where I am today had I not gone to a grammar school. On a bad day I think I might actually be in the lap of luxury, married to a successful builder instead of working part time and making ends meet with the social working son of a vicar. But I wouldn't have been satisfied, having the sort of inquiring mind and joy of study that footballers wives types would not understand. My very intelligent parents used their talents to build a good life for their child in post war London. I was lucky to have their support to use that grammar school (which went comprehensive when I was 14, but I got the best of it). My cousins were not so lucky, indeed my parents faced a deal of criticism for encouraging my study, which took the blame for a lot including my spectacles. I agree wholeheartedly with this article. My husband actually failed his 11+. I keep telling him that this does not detract from the principle of selection. For 2 reasons, first that the method of selection could be adjusted as necessary. Second, that his graduating into a professional career after failing at 11 shows that the children of the educated middle class are not the ones who need the grammar schools. Next year we have the problem of deciding what school is best for our daughter, and the nerveracking ordeal of applying and hoping she gets the place she wants. And if that was not enough, she is lucky to have educated vigorous parents, like I did, but to further discourage the brightest working class pupils is the thought of finishing further education deep in debt. I truly believe that the current scheme of fees and loans is the latest attempt to keep the prolatariat in it's place. Even with comprehensives trying to crush every spark of originality out of our young enough are still coming through to frighten the chattering classes. If anyone has read the comments on BBC "Have your say" about education funding, the overwhelming majority of comments from the existing middle class suggest that students should go into plumbing or carpentry. They cannot get anybody to work for them, and don't want to expand their ranks. Actually (my dad was an electrician so I have a lot of respect for a skilled trade) a skilled trade is no bad thing. But if a student has it in them to be a lawyer or an architect or an archeologist why should they settle for something different?