SELWYN DORFMAN

Let’s back plans to expand grammar schools

WHEN two people from Edinburgh meet for the first time, the conversation always starts with “you’ll have had your tea then” and moves on to “where did you go to school?”

Partly it’s snobbishness. Scots have imbibed English hang-ups about social class (though maybe you got it from us!).

But there is also the fact that Scottish education is — or rather was — for a long time very different to that pertaining south of the border.

All over Scotland, literacy and numeracy were regarded as a universal entitlement and different types of schools were established to meet the need.

Nowhere was there such a diverse range of schools than in Edinburgh where I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s.

If you were posh you went to The Edinburgh Academy, though if you were aristocracy (or Tony Blair) then Fettes was the place for you.

There were state schools, of course, for those who couldn’t afford fees or were too parsimonious (a rare Scottish trait!).

But in between these two extremes, there were loads of schools for which the fees were very modest and affordable by a wide range of ordinary people. These establishments were partly funded by the local authority and were known as direct grant schools.

They provided a decent education on a par with English public schools. But the catch was that you had to pass an examination to get in.

I remember as a four-year- old being taken by my mother round several schools to be “interviewed” by the headmaster. I am sorry to say I failed nearly every entrance test.

Mum said these posh heads were a bunch of antisemites (it was the 1960s, remember), but frankly I was just too clever for them.

On one occasion, I was shown a picture of a stork, and on seeing my bafflement, the head prompted me: “It’s where all the babies come from.”

“On no!” I corrected him. “We got our baby (my younger sister) from a hospital.”

Eventually, one of these schools took pity and allowed me in. So for the next nine years, I had a decent, cut-price, state-subsided education where I mixed with pupils from all walks of life.

Some readers will be punching their calculators and asking: Nine years? Don’t tell us you left school at 14! Of course not. But in the 1970s, the Labour government decided that since cheap, entrance-exam schools were not available to everyone, therefore no one should have them.

So they abolished the direct grant, and my parents, who were not wealthy, found themselves having to pay proper fees for the last four years of my schooling.

The secondary school I went to in the 1970s is still private and currently charges £14,000 per annum — something my parents could never have afforded back in the 1970s, even allowing for inflation.

This episode has ingrained in me a deep suspicion of socialism and its assorted progeny, including equality which, far from helping poorer people, invariably prevent cash-strapped “strivers” from trying to better themselves.

I am prompted to regale you with my early years in the wake of a recent report from the Higher Education Policy Institute confirming what we knew all along: that the 167 remaining grammar schools are good for social mobility.

Grammar schools are quite similar to direct grant schools (though we didn’t have these in Scotland). They also have an entrance test, but don’t charge fees. Most grammar schools in England and Wales were closed down for ideological reasons around the same time that the direct grant schools were abolished.

It was a grave mistake.

I always read the obituaries in the national press and am struck by the large number of high-achieving people who, like me, came from modest backgrounds but went to the best universities via grammar/direct grant schools.

Critics of grammar schools make some valid points. The very poorest children can’t be expected to pass the entrance exam and are left to languish in sub-standard state schools.

Conversely, wealthy parents game the system by having their kids coached for the tests with the result that today’s grammar schools have a disproportionate number of middle-class kids.

But it was not always so. In the years following the 1944 Education Act which expanded the grammar school system, every Labour council ensured there was a good grammar in their town so that working-class children could get that extra leg-up.

Some years ago, Ian Hislop presented a TV documentary showing how the Labour governments of the ’60s and ’70s had saved Eton, Harrow and other top public schools from imminent extinction.

Throughout the 1950s, wealthy parents were increasingly taking advantage of grammar schools because they couldn’t see the point in paying “big bucks” for something they could get free.

Luckily for Eton and co, Labour came to their rescue when they started abolishing grammar schools!

Of course, if you are Jewish you have other options: readers know that Jewish schools provide an excellent, almost free, education for pupils from all backgrounds.

Which is why I was distressed to read some time ago letters in the national press from representatives of the Jewish educational establishment deploring government plans to expand grammar schools.

Are they worried about the competition? Why stand in the way of non-Jewish families who want their children to get on?

I now know where babies come from (thanks in part to Mrs Dorfman). But if we want clever, disadvantaged children to make the most of themselves, we should back the government’s plans and ignore the naysayers, Jewish or otherwise.

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