Magazine article The Spectator

Why Did He Do It?

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Did He Do It?

Article excerpt

While David Cameron was at a Basildon comprehensive on Monday announcing that the Conservative party no longer believes in selective education, my ten-year-old son was sitting the 11-plus at a private school in Suffolk. There are no grammar schools left in Suffolk, as it happens, nor in Cambridgeshire, nor in Norfolk: my son's 11-plus papers had been sent up from Kent.

But if it comes to moving the family 100 miles so that my son can enjoy the grammar-school education that I did, that is exactly what I will do. The alternative is to stay put and spend up to £13,000 a year on private education.

Fortunately, I am in a position to be able to afford that, though I resent having to pay for my children's education twice -- once through my taxes and again through school fees. For most parents of bright children, needless to say, the choice does not arise:

they cannot afford £13,000 per child per year, nor is it practical for them to move into the catchment area of a grammar school. They must submit their children to the failed 1960s experiment that was comprehensive education while crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. As rather too many local parents have confided in me, crossing their fingers did not prove enough.

I think especially of the classics don, himself a grammar-school boy, who told me that his children's education at a Cambridge comprehensive had been 'disastrous'. Never mind expecting comprehensives to teach classics: exam entries in maths, English, physics, chemistry and modern languages are all plunging, as comprehensives increasingly push their pupils towards soft subjects where high marks can more easily be attained.

Until this week -- or perhaps until he hinted at a change of heart in an interview published shortly before Christmas -- I believed that David Cameron, though privileged enough himself to attend Eton, understood the extent to which comprehensive education is holding back academically able children of modest backgrounds. I assumed that as shadow education secretary he had taken notice of the recent study by the London School of Economics which found that social mobility has declined markedly since the mass closure of grammar schools. Comparing two groups, one born in 1958 and one born in 1970, the researchers discovered that there was more upward migration between income brackets among the older group. Among the second group, the children of poor parents had a much greater tendency to remain poor -- astonishing, given the outward appearance of modern Britain as a classless society.

Moreover, I assumed that David Cameron had looked at the evidence contained within the 'value-added' GCSE exam tables:

that children do better when educated within a selective education system. Ivan Lewis, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for education, was forced to admit as much when prodded on the matter in the Commons last January, revealing that, between the ages of 11 and 15, children educated in local authority areas which operate a wholly selective system make extra progress equivalent to two grades in one subject at GCSE. This was not merely because grammar-school children were doing better than their equivalents at comprehensive schools, but because children at secondary moderns were doing better, too.

Mr Cameron certainly gave the appearance of having taken these things on board.

Last June he was presented with figures showing that A-level students also make faster progress at grammar schools than at comprehensives, and responded thus: 'The fact that grammar schools continue to improve at a faster rate [than comprehensive schools] shows how wrong it is for Labour to continue to undermine them. It is vital that all schools stretch bright pupils and encourage excellence. Giving schools greater freedoms -- including the ability to select pupils -- will help this to happen.' The Conservative leader was still speaking up for academic selection the day after he was elected Tory leader. …

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