The main beneficiaries were private schools
In his 1961 dystopian short story Harrison Bergeron, Kurt Vonnegut imagines a world where “everyone is finally equal.” Society is ruled by a man called The Handicapper General, whose agents force citizens to don handicaps in the name of equality: masks for those who are too beautiful, heavy weights for those who are too athletic, earpieces with disruptive white noise for those who are too intelligent. No-one is allowed any natural advantage, and in the end, everyone suffers.
A similar argument could be applied to the abolition of grammar schools. Rather than sending a substantial minority to grammar schools, which would greatly increase the diversity of people working across the professions, we send next to none as we would think it unfair on those left behind. Instead, everyone is left behind.
The impact of grammar schools on social mobility is well-documented in Adrian Wooldridge’s excellent new history, The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made The Modern World. Wooldridge argues that grammar schools successfully undermined Britain’s clubby, cronyist establishment; for example, public schools’s share of Oxbridge places declined from 55% in 1959 to 38% in 1967, with the difference made almost entirely by grammar schools.
As grammar schools boomed, public schools entered a prolonged crisis; in 1956, a Tory MP warned the Independent Schools’ Association that private schools might be unable to compete with the “quite fantastic” level of facilities and results in local grammar schools. Sir Eric Anderson, ex-Headmaster of Eton College, speculated that “60% of the public schools would have gone under if grammar schools had remained.” Ironically, many of the Labour MPs who pushed through the abolition of grammar schools, like Anthony Crosland and Shirley Williams, were privately educated.
This therefore raises an intriguing hypothetical: if grammar schools had been allowed to continue, would private schools have been the casualties of Britain’s ‘meritocratic moment’? And if so, is the abolition of grammar schools at least partly to blame for our current poshocracy?
Grammar schools are, of course, far from perfect. The 11+ is a crude, overly coached entrance exam and existing grammar schools only take a tiny percentage of students on free school meals. Nonetheless, as Wooldridge points out, “academically selective schools have an impressive record in providing an escalator into the elite”. However, rather than creating a national system that makes an arbitrary division at the age of 11, Wooldridge contends that instead we should create a highly-variegated school system that has lots of different types of schools, including academically selective ones.
While recent governments have added some variety with the introduction of free schools and academies, the only ones that are allowed to be selective are Sixth Forms. Schools like Harris Westminster and the London Academy of Excellence have been hugely successful for bright, underprivileged pupils: Harris Westminster has over 40% of students on Pupil Premium and yet also received the second highest number of state school Oxbridge offers in 2020.
Although I agree with Wooldridge that we must not repeat the mistakes of the past, it’s time to re-evaluate our one-size-fits-all approach. If the government allowed more academies the autonomy to be selective, we could support more able students sooner, and this could have huge political as well as social ramifications. As Michael Sandel argues in The Tyranny of Merit, the smug superiority of the self-perpetuating elite is partly responsible for the political upheavals of the last five years. If we want to fight polarisation between the Right and Left in our politics, then we must also fight polarisation between private and state schools.