The decision by David Willetts and David Cameron to turn Conservative Party policy against grammar schools was shocking to me initially and my reaction was that it was a a bunch of public schoolboys pulling up the ladder to ensure that grammar school pupils no longer threatened their status as the elite. However the more I think about it the greater my sympathy for the decision is.
Conservatives generally support grammars because they were extremely effective in giving bright young children good educations and because of the inadequacy of the comprehensive system that replaced them. The shortcomings of comprehensives are that they fail to challenge the brightest pupils, they treat their inmates like interchangeable widgets in a factory, and they leave poor children with little hope of getting a good education. One of the major factors for me in support of grammars in the past has been the cold ideology of their opponents, who are motivated by class envy rather than a desire to improve education, people like Fiona Miller who believe that children exist to serve schools not the other way around. In the comprehensive ideal as envisioned by socialists parents would have absolutely no choice even of which school their children went to, children are allocated to which school they must attend by the state.
Yet focusing on the failings of comprehensives doesn't actually provide an answer for the question of why grammar schools are the solution. Many of the failings of comprehensives are only slightly alleviated by grammars. They are still an incredibly statist way to run an education system, as Margaret Thatcher has said having the state test children then deciding what school to assign them to is " more consonant with socialism and collectivism ... than with liberalism and conservatism."
Comprehensivism is the equivalent of demanding that everyone eats porridge for breakfast regardless of what they would prefer, but selection is like demanding that 80% of people have porridge whilst those who you deem worthy can have cornflakes. Neither option provides an option for those who want croissants or bacon & eggs, to continue the analogy past the point where it is useful.
David Willetts is also correct about how the costs and benefits of a selective system, the people who are currently stranded in sink comprehensives would by and large be the same people that would be stuck in sink secondary moderns, we would still have an under educated underclass.
My personal preference would be to have a voucher system where parents, or at the age of 16 pupils, can choose from an array of different schools, some will choose schools with small class sizes, some will choose schools that specialise in particular subjects, some will choose schools that offer a good deal of child autonomy or schools with a traditional 'grammar school' ethos. The point is that rather than students competing for schools, schools will compete for students.
Vouchers aren't the only alternative possibility either, perhaps the government 'City Academy' program will work, perhaps schools can be devolved down to local government instead of national government. There are many options other than 'Grammars' versus 'Comprehensives'. Since the introduction of comprehensive schools in 1965 there have been 22 years of Tory government under three different prime ministers. Despite the Conservative party's supposed sympathy for grammar schools none of the PMs have sought to reintroduce them, by dropping the pretense that they might do so attention can now be focused on politically plausible ways of improving secondary schooling.
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