Winning the argument on grammar schools....

Melissa Benn's picture
A quick report on two successes for the comprehensive argument in recent student union debates.

The first was held on February 5th, at Manchester Debating Union, the largest student debating body in the country, where Professor Bernard Barker ( the first comprehensive student to go on to become the head of a comprehensive school) and I were arguing against Robert McCartney of the National Grammar Schools Association and Graham Brady MP on the motion: This House Supports the Re-Introduction of Grammar Schools.

After a heated, but largely good tempered, discussion, between panellists and from the floor, the motion was defeated. (Initial voting had suggested a narrow margin against the motion; we increased our share of the vote after the debate.) One of the key themes raised in this discussion was whether comprehensive schools produce good results - we argued that they certainly can - and, a slightly different point here, cater for really bright children? On the latter point, we heard anecdotes from either side of the argument. Robert McCartney tried to suggest that comprehensive education was based on sloppy, overly 'progressive' and child-centred ideas of teaching and learning. It seems that MDU agreed with us that Mr McCartney was behind the times on this issue.

For videos of all the contributions and further details of the debate itself, click on the word 'first' above.

I took part in a similar debate at the Cambridge Union on February 19th. Here, our challenge was greater than it was in Manchester as voting at the beginning of the debate was in favour of the motion This House Would Re-introduce Grammar Schools; our job was to persuade the 'House' otherwise.

Cambridge Union is much more formal in atmosphere and structure; one can be interrupted, bar the first and last minute, at any point during one's speech; most of the male debaters still wear formal dress, including bow ties; in short, it can feel like a rehearsal for life in the House of Commons or at the Bar ( although I understand the Oxford Union is even worse, in this respect..)

Our opponents were Robert McCartney (again), Andrew Shilling, a parent leading a campaign to set up a new/satellite grammar in Kent and Shaun Fenton, head of Reigate grammar, an independent school. Our side was represented by Michael Pyke of CASE, Ndidi Okesie, of Teach First and myself, recently elected Chair of Comprehensive Future.

A couple of action shots - of Ndidi Okezie, who was sensational, and myself below.


Again, we won this debate, quite decisively, with a swing of 33% in our favour.

In my view, this was due to two main elements. Firstly, even those arguing for the 'reintroduction' of grammar schools could not really justify the historic waste of talent and opportunity - ably elaborated by Michael Pyke - that resulted from the post war division between grammars and secondary moderns. The argument, on their side, seems to have shifted from the reintroduction of a mandatory 11 plus to the importance of offering an 'academic' education to a few (most of whom, judging on current figures, are likely to come from relatively affluent homes) with good comprehensives for the rest. (No-one uses the term 'secondary moderns' any more, for obvious reasons. ) The fact that you cannot have a grammar and comprehensive system running side by side cannot be stated too often.

Secondly, our side's strength lay in our detailed exposition of the evidence of the slow and steady educational success brought about by comprehensive education in this country over the last fifty years, the fact that selection clearly harms the opportunities and achievements of poor children ( this argument was powerfully expressed by Ndidi Okozie) and that large parts of the Tory party now recognise that selection harms the majority. Finally, we have learned a great deal about what makes a good comprehensive system, and school, over the last fifty years, leading to some examples of stunning schools around the country, and particularly in poorer areas.

For all these reasons ( and more) there is now a broad cross-party consensus that non selective schools - a good local school for all - is the only rational principle on which to run a state education system and that it would be fatal to return to a damaging and divisive system of old.

Reader, they agreed with us.
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Michele -Lowe's picture
Sat, 07/03/2015 - 11:58

Very pleased to hear about this kind of progress. It may sound elitist, but if the prejudices against non-selective education are allowed to sit, unchallenged, in the minds of people who will one day pull the levers of power (and you're going to find a high proportion of the future political class in these universities), then we'll be facing the same old squandering of people's talents as we have see before. There's a strong argument to be made for targeting certain ears and, in general, getting the point across. Our media - and I agree whole heartedly with Fiona Millar here - also has a strong bias against comprehensive education. They, too, need to have the arguments put to them. I'd personally like to hear more people in the public eye acknowledging their debt to the comprehensive school which educated them.

Leah K Stewart's picture
Sat, 07/03/2015 - 13:46

While I am in favor of the ideological arguments of nation-wide non-selective schooling for all, I feel that, from the student's perspective, the current debates for/against grammars existing aren't the most crucial thing to solve right now. Because, although it's in no way clever or inclusive to stream kids at 11 years old (for context: I went to the local grammar, my brother went to the local comp)... the difference of that one day defines us over the next 5 years explicitly in the form of a school uniform.

It's seductive for students and parents to feel proud of passing that one test age 11. Superiority is a nice feeling. What I saw as a student through involvement in a local youth club, four hours a week plus many weekends where I was the only one from my school, is that there is no 'collective' difference between us students. None. Yet in the streets, before and after school, the segregation is obvious.

Locals implicitly trusted students from my school and implicitly (sometimes explicitly) distrusted students from the other schools. How saddening for my friends! How simple to resolve by loosing compulsory uniforms and, eventually perhaps, loosing our fixation with segregation which may eventually lead to a natural awakening to the nonsense of grammar schools.

I've written my 'pitch' for this conversation here:
I'd be delighted of the brilliant members of this Network would take a look. I'm fully contactable via my website and twitter @LearntSchool.

Melissa Benn's picture
Mon, 09/03/2015 - 09:22

I will take a look Leah , thanks for your contribution - but can I point out, as I did in the post, that if you went to the local grammar then your brother did not attend a fully comprehensive school. It's a logical impossibility. Will be in touch.

Leah K Stewart's picture
Mon, 09/03/2015 - 20:38

Oh yes, my bad. Thank you for pointing that one out, I'm learning so much on this network. I guess my point is that I've experienced the separation and saw no need for it. It was a shame for my grammar school peers who were sheltered for no reason and it's a shame for my friends in other schools who carry the 'not good enough' chip for a long time.

Do you think the world might soon realize how little classroom peers need to matter when global networking and collaboration already makes prejudices over 'who you happen to share a classroom with' seem silly? The sooner this is understood the sooner the energy, money, and stress over school selection can slide into history. If I can help in anyway towards this, please do let me know!

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 07/03/2015 - 21:23

Well done Melissa.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 08/03/2015 - 09:19

It appears, then, the argument in favour of grammars is demolished when faced with the evidence.

Unfortunately, the pro-grammar lobbyists are a noisy minority which is supported by most of the media which is anti-comprehensive, pro-selection at 11+. Recent headlines, prompted by a Press Association article, for example, said "State schools 'failing best pupils'" (Daily Mail).

Seeing this, readers would be forgiven in thinking this meant all 'state schools' were inferior to independent schools.

A few paragraphs in, and the Mail said it was 'non-selective' schools which were not stretching the most able (ie the 'best' - what does that make the rest - the 'worst'?). This, the Mail said, was based on a 'highly-critical' and 'damning' Ofsted report. And the Mail only quotes the figures showing those previously high-attainers who don't get an A grade which, as I've said elsewhere, is higher than the DfE target for previously high-attaining pupils (B) and is also a target which is not met by the majority of grammar schools.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Sun, 08/03/2015 - 10:53

Unfortunately the privatisation of our education system begun by Tony Blair, means that a return to selection is inevitable.

Although academies are fully funded by the taxpayer they are independent schools. There is no effective democratic control over them and nothing to stop a future education secretary allowing them to select their pupils on the basis of ability. This could be done with a stroke of a pen, since a change to the Statutory Instruments would not need a new Education Act, but would be just nodded through parliament.

Many academies already are actively involved in selecting their pupils by gaming the admissions process. Now that most of our secondary schools have been privatised it will be very difficult to reverse this policy.

It is disgraceful that rank and file supporters of the Labour allowed this policy to be introduced under a government that they had voted for.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 08/03/2015 - 13:46

Patrick, you are entirely right about the culpability of New Labour. However this does does not mean that a return to selection is inevitable whoever wins the General Election in May.

I am a regular critic of the Labour opposition and successive shadow Education Ministers. Labour still has a long way to go on education policy despite clear signs set out by Janet Downs and others that the direction of travel is towards increasing caution and scepticism of the Academies model.

But on the issue of selection and grammar schools there is no doubt whatever. If Ed Miliband is elected Prime Minister in May there will be no new grammar schools. If Cameron becomes Prime Minister then we will certainly see not just grammar school selection returning but also a high probability of schools run for profit by fully commercial Academy chains. Those are the only two possible outcomes regardless of the electoral arithmetic.

The clearest indication to date of the thinking of Ed Miliband can be found in a long article by Simon Hattenstone in Saturday's Guardian based on in depth interviews conducted over two weeks spent following Ed on the campaign trail.

Whenever I point out the sheer inescapable logic of the necessity for those of us with broadly similar educational views to vote Labour and do everything possible to encourage others to do the same I attract vitriolic criticism from predictable quarters, but no alternative suggestions are usually forthcoming.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Sun, 08/03/2015 - 20:30

I agree that if Labour has a working majority after the next election they would be better than the Conservatives (and they will get my vote), but I have no expectation at all that they would reverse course on academies (or on any other privatisation for that matter), so it is only be a matter of time before the Conservatives regain power and bring in selection by the back door.

The return of grammar schools is absolutely inevitable and the privatisation of our maintained schools, begun by Tony Blair and his New Labour cronies, is the cause of this.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 09/03/2015 - 09:33

Schools Week published research by DataLab which found 'those children who just pass the 11+, on average, perform worse than their primary school peers who just miss out on getting that place at the grammar school.' The report's here (scroll down).

agov's picture
Mon, 09/03/2015 - 10:28

Your logic is wrong, Roger. A NuLab or Conservative majority or coalition government are not the only possibilities. Especially as (correct me if I'm wrong) all the other parties except the venal LibDems have said they will not enter a coalition.

A far more preferable and possibly likely outcome is a minority government dependent upon Green, UKIP, SNP and other MPs.

The core problem is that the liblabcons in effect hijacked the electoral system and abused government office to pursue their own whims many of which revolved around making themselves and their rich friends richer and keeping working people as poor as possible. The requirement isn't to get rid of one bit of the liblabcons in doubtful preference to some other bit but to get rid of their entire system.

[Sorry, the problem of the blue Reply button not working (for some people - me) has still been fixed and apparently it isn't going to be.]

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 09/03/2015 - 13:26

agov - Whatever combination of major and minor Parties are elected there will be a government in which the said Parties may or may not participate in some way or another. However, there can only be one Prime Minister and that can only be Ed Miliband or David Cameron.

In the lifetime of the next parliament there will be no new grammar schools if Ed Miliband is Prime Minister, which is what this thread is about. If Cameron is elected then so far as education is concerned the creation of new grammar schools will be at the mild end of the destruction of the education system, as is absolutely clear from today's announcement by the current Prime Minister, despite the demolition of the basis of his argument in Henry's latest post.

Whatever the ultimate chances of your goal of getting 'rid of their entire system', it is not going be an outcome of the next General Election. So we are back to the logic of how to vote in May. The only rational approach, other than impotent despair, is to cross each bridge when you come to it.

James Harvey's picture
Mon, 09/03/2015 - 17:09

Nicely put, Melissa. As a product of a London grammar school, I agree with you.

Regarding the "waste of talent," here's an anecdote: My twin brother and I took the "11+" on the same day. I qualified for a grammar school; he, although much more able than I, qualified for "a secondary modern." I long ago concluded that the "11+" ruined his life. He never got over the constant negative comparisons with his twin or his sense of failure.

By chance, I mentioned this experience a few weeks ago after meeting a young woman from Holland at an education meeting in the United States. She reported something similar in Holland with a younger brother. She qualified for an elite secondary education; he did not. She went on to a successful professional career. Ashamed, he turned to drugs and is now in jail.

Melissa Benn's picture
Mon, 09/03/2015 - 21:01

James, thanks for this. There are so many human stories similar to yours. But given that education is, in the end, all about developing human capacity why are we surprised when individuals who are told they are failures or 'less than', and this before they hit puberty, become discouraged, often for life? It's a crazy system, whatever the so called successes ( such as yourself!)

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 10/03/2015 - 07:51

Melissa and James - the same applies when the media (eg the Daily Mail) describe those who gain Level 5 in KS2 Sats as the 'best' pupils. What does that say to those with Level 4 or less? That they are the worst?

agov's picture
Tue, 10/03/2015 - 15:41

"will be no new grammar schools if Ed Miliband is Prime Minister"

Probably, but then remember ""Read my lips. No selection by examination or interview"?

Let Roy Hattesley remind you -

"The Labour government of 1997 was better than its word - that is, its secret word to the grammar-school lobby, not its public word to its party conference. The 168 grammar schools have not only survived, many have grown in size, intensifying their baleful effect on the surrounding so-called comprehensive schools and prejudicing proper teaching in the contributory primaries, as well as increasing the amount of the outdated form of education that Blunkett under-took to abolish."

"which is what this thread is about"

It's also about winning arguments, which is nice, but there is no reason to assume the liblabcons are in any way concerned that the stated aims of their policies are unconvincing and unjustifiable.

"If Cameron is elected then so far as education is concerned the creation of new grammar schools will be at the mild end of the destruction of the education system"

Could be, but depends on how few MPs he gets. The fewer the better as with the rest of the liblabcon hegemony.

It does appear that the different bits of the liblabcons agree with you that trying to scare the electorate about the other bits is the best way to go. Presumably they accept that not many people will believe any promises made about their own policies. That's why so many people, not least in Scotland, are aware they have crossed bridges in the past only to find they hadn't actually gone anywhere except backward.

Peter Leyland's picture
Sat, 11/04/2015 - 13:08

Pleased to hear from Melissa on how the two debates went. Our selection supporting media need to be aware of this and get rid of their grammar school bias.

Michael Pyke's picture
Mon, 13/04/2015 - 11:46

As Melissa has said, we won the Cambridge debate because the evidence was on our side and because, between the three of us, we organised it into a coherent and persuasive narrative. By contrast, the proposers of the motion offered an incoherent rag-bag of contradictory ideas and clashing objectives. The 33% swing was a great credit to the willingness of the students to listen and decide the case on its merits. However I was forcefully struck by the fact that the majority of the students who spoke in the debate did not really know what a comprehensive school was. For the great majority of them, it was a school that you had to go to when you didn't get into something better. The notion of education as an essentially hierarchical process, the chief purpose of which is to identify and nourish "bright children" has long antecedents in our society and it is still an extremely damaging presence.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 13/04/2015 - 12:33

Michael - it's shocking to think the majority of Cambridge students you encountered - students who are supposed to be the brightest of their generation - were so sheltered and lacking in awareness of the country that they didn't know what kind of school educates the majority of state secondary pupils.

It appears private schools don't prepare pupils well for life in modern Britain!

Michael Pyke's picture
Mon, 13/04/2015 - 22:45

Janet, I don't think this lack of awareness is restricted to private school students*: after all, a large majority of Cambridge students (63%) went to state schools (although this may not necessarily be reflected in the membership of the Cambridge Union Society). I think the casual assumptions made by the students are the same as those of the wider society and that they stem from the weak and half hearted way in which comprehensive schools were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s. By allowing so many LEAs to retain one or two selective schools, the governments of the day ensured that most comprehensive schools would enjoy second class status and, indeed, that many of them would be comprehensive only in name. Added to this is that the very notion of comprehensive schooling undermines the deep rooted British belief in the rightness of social hierarchy.

*although I was once asked by a teacher in a private school if the children in my comprehensive school "carried knives"! "Only in the dining room", I said.

David Barry's picture
Tue, 14/04/2015 - 08:57

My daughter went to an inner London comprehensive. Fiona Miller knows it well -Parliament Hill School - she was once asked at her university (UEA Norwich) in all seriousness, if there was much of a knife problem at her school. She replied, not really providing you always wore your dress code stab vest....

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