A question unasked in all this row about the Conservatives and
grammar schools is, ‘Why did the Tories, in power for 22 of the 42 years since Labour first tried to make comprehensives compulsory, never bring grammar schools back?’ The answer is numerical, and it explains the problem with which poor David Willetts is wrestling. At their height, grammar schools educated about 19 per cent of the secondary-school population. This meant that dissatisfied parents always outnumbered satisfied ones. Although many secondary moderns were good, broadly speaking, parents whose children were not at grammar schools felt ill-treated. This was especially true of those parents, often likely Tory voters, who had high aspirations for their children which were dashed when they failed the 11-plus. Perhaps if grammar schools had admitted, say, 40 per cent of the nation’s pupils, the electoral weight on their side would have prevailed, but 19 per cent was never enough. So what the Tories are trying to do today is to escape from being the permanent representatives of a minority interest in education. They should never disparage grammar schools in their attempt to do this, and they should not say that selection is wrong. That was the trap into which Mr Willetts appeared to fall in his speech. But they are surely right that the next big thing in education will be not selection, but school independence. Tony Blair’s city academy programme is the germ of this, and Mr Willetts should be backed in wanting to expand it so much that the ‘bog-standard comprehensive’ will become a thing of the past.
Hazel Blears, who wants to be deputy leader of the Labour party, declared last week: ‘I went to a grammar school. My brother didn’t. I’m in the Cabinet. He’s still driving buses. So I don’t like grammar schools.’ The non-sequitur in these words is breathtaking. Would she like grammar schools better if she were now driving buses, or if her brother were in the Cabinet and she wasn’t? So breathtaking, in fact, that one wonders what on earth they taught her all those years ago at Wardley Grammar School.
Defending Gordon Brown, whose deputy she too wishes to be, Harriet Harman says, ‘He’s not saying people have to have a moral compass; he’s saying he has one.’ So a moral compass is like satnav in your car — a useful and posh but not essential addition to the business of getting about. If you think that, you haven’t got one. Last week, I obtained proof that some people do possess a moral compass. Somewhere between Clifford Street, W1, and St James’s Park, I dropped my black book containing many, many years of telephone numbers, but no information about whom to contact when you find it. In the park, I realised I had lost it, and retraced my steps, to no avail. I went to Savile Row police station, but the queue was so long that I lost heart and left. A call to the police, which took a day to get through, revealed that you have to put your report of lost property in writing before they can attend to it. Then I got a call from my brother-in-law. A man had found his number in my book and had rung him, searching for the owner. I rang the man. His wife had found the book in the street, he told me, and he had started to work through the numbers (my brother-in-law’s name begins with B) to find the owner. I asked if I could give the couple a present in thanks, but they said please could I contribute to a charity run by their synagogue instead, which I did. One takes too little trouble to record such acts of kindness, which is strange, because they are miraculous.
Some good news on the educational front. The protests against the abolition of ancient history A-Level (see last week’s Notes) seem to have worked. The relevant board, OCR, climbed down on Friday and is now in talks to save the subject. The story reveals, though, the pressure to make exams worse, which is constant. The state of educational bureaucracy is such that even ideas which are good in principle come out all wrong. Thus the justified objection to too much continuous assessment has led to a fall in the number of ‘units’ (i.e. areas of subject) studied, when what it should have produced was a sharp curtailing of assessment. Similarly, the new emphasis on learning tailored to suit the individual abilities and interests of each pupil sounds right, but is in fact a way of abolishing the idea of a core of necessary knowledge and allowing anyone who so wishes to evade the difficult bits. Talk about how exam qualifications are for ‘life’, not just for higher education, is used as a way of weakening all subjects which are not clearly vocational. Even with the saving of ancient history, OCR plans are still going ahead for the passages of original language which have to be studied in Greek and Latin A-Levels to be shortened. And I gather from modern linguists that the study of literature is now being sidelined in French and German A-Levels. In this atmosphere, it is not surprising that fewer and fewer people who revere education want to set exams. I am told by the ancient history campaigners that they discovered that no one on the staff of the OCR has a history degree.
Although ‘localism’ is all the rage in political discourse, there has been a collapse of the coverage of local issues in the national media. The most entertaining form of this coverage used to be the parliamentary by-election. Reporters were sent off to the constituency for the duration of the campaign, and got to know the place well. Over the course of two or three weeks, they would talk to the voters and play back to their readers what they were thinking. The issues usually emerged as a complicated blend of the local and the national, and the reports gave a much more accurate account than lobby journalism of how politics actually works. Now — why? — these reports have been largely dropped. All the more reason, then, to welcome the latest edition of The Almanac of British Politics by Robert Waller and Byron Criddle (Routledge). It is a complete guide to the Westminster constituencies (and to their sitting members) and their political and social complexion. As Alan Watkins says of Who’s Who, half an hour with the Almanac is never wasted.
If you want to see how BBC people can behave when they are feeling righteous, do watch John Sweeney of Panorama screaming dementedly at some members of the Church of Scientology (available on YouTube) when they objected to his interview techniques. He looks and sounds like a secret police interrogator. Because they are Scientologists and therefore considered preposterous, Mr Sweeney has got off with making a mild apology. If he had shouted like that at Muslims, he would now be out of a job, and in hiding.