02 August 2007

Myths about grammar schools

The fiction continues that the grammar schools provided a way in which bright working class children could rise in the world. Thinking back over the lives of my parents’ families in East London, I suppose that the time at which the grammar schools were of most use to at least somebody was when my parents got scholarships, and that was before they were state grammar schools. There were 16 scholarships in the Borough, so only a relatively small proportion of the children had them, there were two separate departments for boys and girls, and the school still had the standards and ethos of a private school of that time.

The sort of people who most obviously benefitted from this situation to some extent were my parents’ families, socially displaced people with aristocratic genes and with high IQs. It enabled such people to rise into white-collar but strictly lower middle class jobs, which the upper class would not have touched with a bargepole. My aunts and uncles were as successful as was permitted by their bad start in life, but the ones I knew were nearly all frustrated and complaining of their lives. One uncle, branch manager of an accountancy firm in Chelmsford, groaned wearily to my mother, ‘It is just a case of finding people’s missing halfpennies for them.’

Another uncle became Head of a Department at the Local Authority and won a scholarship in a national competition (for local government employees) to go to university – any one that would take him, but he refused to take it up. My mother, perhaps unrealistically, thought him perverse for not taking it up, but where would it have got him? As he said, he could not be sure that he would get his job back at the Local Authority if he left it, and he had no assurance that he would be able to get any job better than that, however well he did. He would be a mature student and there was no guarantee of an academic career.

I know that the modern unrealistic ideology wishes you to ascribe value to ‘taking’ a degree per se, without considering what you are doing it for, but it seems that my uncle did not, or not sufficiently to set his predictable career at risk.

Quotation from review of a pernicious and tendentious modern book on IQ, to which I am prevented by lack of financial support from providing a riposte:
“The brains of our nation,” Galton proclaimed, “lie in the higher of our classes” – precisely the assumption the 11-plus was designed to challenge. (John Carey in the Sunday Times *)

If the idea of the grammar schools was to show that only poverty prevented the working class from competing on equal terms with the aristocracy, I don’t think they did that.

* from a review (Sunday Times Culture section, 8 July 2007) of IQ: The Brilliant Idea That Failed by Stephen Murdoch.