The Corner

Social Mobility? Britain’s Labour Party Prefers ‘Fairness’

Winston Churchill had this to say of the British Labour Party: “‘All men are created equal’ says the American Declaration of Independence. ‘All men shall be kept equal’ say the Socialists.” Given this, and other such observations, it is safe to say that Churchill would have strongly disapproved of yesterday’s statement by shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg, which affirmed the opposition Labour Party’s determination to maintain its absurd opposition to grammar schools in Britain.

For those unfamiliar with the term, grammar schools were the selective tier of state-funded secondary education in Britain between 1944 and 1976. They were introduced by the wartime coalition, led by Churchill, in an attempt to improve social mobility. They worked. To gain entrance, one had to take an exam at age 11. If one passed — the 11-plus, the exam was called — one got in. There were no fees. It was simple: Grammar schools represented the best chance for financially poor but intellectually rich children to receive an education on a par with those provided by the private schools, whose graduates dominated British life. In turn, they were the poor’s best shot at being accepted into university and at escaping any limitations imposed by one’s background. They were a great leveler, and did much to dent the endless cycle of private school children running the key institutions, and passing their advantages down to their offspring.

Despite their excellent record, however, grammar schools were abolished by the hardline-socialist Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s. Now, only a handful remain — mainly in conservative counties. It is a supreme irony that grammar schools’ abolition was undertaken by prime ministers who had personally benefitted from them: Between 1964 and 1997, all five prime ministers were the product of grammar schools. Now, post-abolition, Downing Street appears once again to be dominated by privately educated premiers. Careful what you wish for!

In yesterday’s London Telegraph, Allison Pearson makes a killer point, brilliantly juxtaposing the alacrity with which the British political class accepts that sport will produce elites (and that children can be selected early and trained rigorously for excellence therein) with the discomfort that is felt whenever it is suggested that bright children be fast-tracked:

For, verily, it has been decreed that selection according to nimble feet or muscular arms or dancing grace or vocal ability is permissible and selection according to intelligence is wrong. In Britain, you can be too clever by half, but there is no such thing as too sporty by half. Unthinkable, isn’t it?

You may have noticed that, as a result of these contrasting ethos – Darwinian selection in soccer, denial of the fittest in schools – we have tumbled down the international Premier League table to 17th in reading and 24th in maths, but are rather good at football.

The losers from this are, as usual, the poor. Oxford and Cambridge, Britain’s top two universities, accepted a higher percentage of applicants from state schools when grammar schools were the norm than they do today. Social mobility was higher, too. The Labour Party — which is vehemently opposed to any sort of selective education in the public sector, on grounds that I have never quite understood — bizarrely employs the word “fairness” to advance its opposition to the best mechanism the British government has ever contrived to encourage social mobility. But parents do not share their attitude. As Pearson explains:

Parents will lie, move house, bankrupt themselves with tutors and even engage in high-class prostitution to get their child a precious grammar place. Yet such is the ideological myopia of Mr Twigg and his fellow zealots that selection, even when it is proven to offer the only chance of social mobility, is deemed to be the enemy of something they hilariously call fairness.

The grammar-school system was not perfect. Good students slipped through the cracks; those who developed late felt that 11 was too early an age to make such an important distinction; and the non-grammar schools were overlooked and underfunded in some areas. But, as usual, the British Left did not compare the situation with its alternative — which, now, is the reemergence of the privately-educated elite — but with a utopia that will, by definition, never come to fruition. The perfect, as always, became the enemy of the good. It is time for the British to reestablish an institution that did more to push the poor over the top than any government program in the nation’s history. As the Labour Party might say, “let’s do it for the children.”

The full article is here.


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