Until last year, I was the MP for Buckingham, in one of the few counties where education is fully selective. In the town there are two state secondary schools, a grammar and a secondary modern, right next door to each other. The Royal Latin, founded in 1423, the one grammar school in the constituency, seemed to me to be the embodiment of excellence and confidence. Next to it was the Buckingham school, the local secondary modern, less traditional, admirably serving its pupils who did not pass the 11-plus.
I was warmly welcomed in both schools. But the local political and civic establishment in Buckinghamshire was much more interested in the grammar school. There was a “them and us” attitude. Grammar pupils were encouraged to feel superior and many secondary modern students probably resented them. In later years, there was more collaboration between the schools’ headteachers – sharing of facilities and joint art and drama events, in an effort to bridge the gap in small ways. When I was elected in 1997, it seemed like an apartheid system.
Of course, I always supported both schools to the best of my ability – that is a local MP’s job. And I did not question the selective system itself for a long time. I took the view that there had been too much structural change in education and that we needed to deal with the world as it was. I confess to being conscious, too, that vast swathes of the local electorate were pro-grammar schools, particularly my Conservative voters.
In retrospect, it is extraordinary how very few representations I received against the selective system in my 22 years as an MP, given that only 25% of any cohort of children will pass the 11-plus. I received barely a handful of letters protesting at the system and was lobbied directly only once, by two Labour supporters who did not have children. When parents did approach me, it was usually to seek my help to get their child into a grammar school.
But lately I have changed my opinion on grammar schools. Why? Part of it is the result of a general leftward shift in my political outlook. When David Cameron was elected leader of the Tory party he said: “We shouldn’t keep banging on about grammar schools.” He did not want the Tory party to be defined by them – 164 schools out of thousands and thousands. It made the Conservatives seem narrow, backward-looking, old-fashioned. And he was right.
I never understood why Theresa May made expanding grammar schools a centrepiece of her premiership, although I suspect she was influenced by her chief of staff, Nick Timothy, a high Tory and a grammar school enthusiast. She certainly did not take that stance when she was shadow education secretary, and I was her junior team member in charge of grammars, back in 1999. At that time, I wanted to talk about grammars – to protect them from Labour’s 1998 School Standards and Framework Act, which provided for ballots on grammar schools’ future if 20% of parents demanded them. She was keener to talk about schools in general, and explicitly not to associate the Tory party with the selective school issue.
I believe that Theresa May was right then and is wrong now. And I was wrong then and am right now.
Slowly, I came to see that 11 is far too young to select and that it is massively damaging to the self-esteem of the child. I do not know if my elder son would have passed an exam at 10 (the age that many take the 11-plus) but at age 16, educated at a comprehensive, he has 11 GCSE passes, 10 of them at the top grade 9. Intelligence cannot be measured at the age of 11. Children develop at different rates; I was a late developer, who flourished intellectually only at university. We know that a less privileged socio-economic background and lack of parental education impact negatively on children’s learning. Therefore, the chances of children from these backgrounds are lesser in any test situation.
I used to subscribe to the myth that grammar schools were the great facilitator of opportunity for a bright working-class child. While that may have been true when Fred Perry – a great tennis hero of mine – went to grammar school in the 1920s, that is not the norm today. According to current figures, 18.6% of children going to Buckinghamshire grammars come from private schools; between 25% and 30% come from outside the county.
Selection fosters social division. On average, 10.7% of pupils at Bucks’ non-selective schools are eligible for free school meals (FSM) while the figure for the county’s grammars is just 2%, and a third of Bucks’ non-selective schools are currently rated less than good. The Royal Latin admits just 3.4% of young people on pupil premium (a slightly broader measure of disadvantage), while the Buckingham school takes more than 19%. And despite May’s selective school expansion fund, which promised to increase the numbers of disadvantaged children in selective schools, those Bucks grammars that have recently benefited from extra government funds are actually taking in fewer disadvantaged children than before.
For all these reasons, the attainment gap between FSM children and others is much higher in Bucks than in neighbouring authorities. In data published by the DfE in 2015, only 32.2% of FSM children in Bucks obtained five or more GCSEs at grade C or above (the grading system at the time) while 71.4% of non-FSM children achieved the same. That is a gap of 39.2 percentage points. Compare that with neighbouring Luton, where the difference was only 13%.
I have also been profoundly influenced by my family’s experience, from seeing close up how a fantastic comprehensive works. My three children attend Holland Park in west London, where I have now just been elected a parent-governor. It is a very disciplined school, led by the prodigiously energetic Colin Hall, who arrives at the crack of dawn and is remarkably knowledgable about every child. If a child struggles, the school is all over it, constantly in touch about how to improve learning. The children have a lot of homework, maybe a little too much, but then the curriculum has been overloaded since the reforms of Michael Gove. My children, who are very different in their talents and interests, are flourishing.
Holland Park school is extraordinarily socially and racially diverse, with nearly 17.7% of its school population on free school meals. There are pupils at the school living in £10m houses and others who live in the shadow of Grenfell. Our own children have friends in both categories. They have friends, male and female, of all ethnicities, Christian, Muslim and secular. It is a real London school and that is what I love about it.
I have come to believe that the only way we will get change in the selective areas is to have a countrywide policy, nationally promoted and applied. Grammar schools are unhealthy and should be phased out. We do not suggest that local areas can pick their own energy policy, so why should we with education?
Both the Conservatives and Labour have to take an honest and open position and support comprehensive education everywhere. With the country so divided, and educational disadvantage growing so rapidly, even more so during the pandemic, it is time to act. The evidence is clear: grammar schools unfairly favour the affluent, whereas a high-quality comprehensive system can raise the achievements of the less able, while doing no damage to the academic chances of the cleverer child. Educational quality and social justice make a formidable mix.
John Bercow will be speaking online at a special Comprehensive Future event, Is there a comprehensive future? on 10 December