Why bringing back grammar schools is not proving a popular idea……

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 MDU link 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:


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.