It’s official. The Prime Minister, nudged into action by a careless civil servant, announced on 9 September 2016 that the government she leads will not stand in the way of new grammar schools, nor of existing grammar schools’ plans to expand.

For the Conservative Party (and UKIP), grammar schools are totemic, a kind of Clause IV of the political Right. Grammar schools are seen as embodying many of the values that conservatives hold dear, such as meritocracy, excellence, choice and tradition. As such, I have nothing against them. I didn’t attend one myself, but as they had been abolished in my home town by 1977 when I started school, neither did I suffer the indignity of failing the 11-plus. I went to a comprehensive of a particularly trendy, Leftist kind, and yes, it was a pretty awful experience. My secondary school experience was made bearable by a handful of teachers still willing to admit that there was value in pursuing an ‘academic’ education. These teachers were mostly despised and derided by their trendier colleagues as throwbacks and fossils.

Unlike the Guardian commentators and, no doubt, the teachers’ unions, I am not especially opposed to the intention to lift the ban on establishing new grammar schools. However, I think that this, alone, will achieve relatively little. Far more radical reform is needed.

Although grammar schools live on, happily, in many parts of England (and Northern Ireland), let’s not pretend that they were not essentially abolished. The architect of their destruction was Tony Crossland, and as left wingers never cease to remind us, his work was accelerated and completed by a certain Mrs Margaret Thatcher. Where they live on, they do so because parents want them (we’ll return to this important consideration later), often struggling for survival beneath the raised noses of disapproving Local Authority bureaucrats.

I shall not reproduce the research here — a few minutes on Google will turn it up — but it would be fair to say that many of the social mobility arguments in favour of grammar schools are extremely weak, as far as the hard evidence goes. There is no doubt that most grammar schools are very good, as their exam results suggest. But this should hardly surprise us given that they are academically selective. Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities are also selective, demanding better A-Level results than, say, the University of East Swindon, with predictable outcomes.

Real Social Mobility

So whilst most grammar schools are usually “good schools” they are not the engines of social mobility that many imagine them to be. (It should be noted, though, that some grammar schools make a real effort to increase their number of poorer children, with variable, though mostly positive, results.) One might look at the ethnicity of pupils, or the proportion entitled to free school meals. Stand outside the school gates of a grammar school in the south east of England (okay, maybe don’t actually do that, just imagine it) and you are likely to see a surprisingly large proportion of children of South Asian and East Asian descent. Well, good on them and their parents, but here the ‘Tiger Mother’  stereotype seems to hold true. Entry into a grammar school is not simply about ability, nor indeed just about parental choice, but parental ability and willingness to arrange tuition for the 11 plus. The most educationally disadvantaged group in Britain today is white, working class boys. If we are serious about social mobility, then those boys should be our litmus paper.

The Death of the Grammar Ethos

Since the 1944 Butler Act, there have been, to my mind, two genuinely great reformers (as opposed to mere tinkerers) in state education: Andrew Adonis and Michael Gove. (I heartily recommend reading Adonis’s short book Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools, by the way.) it is interesting that neither had any interest in reviving grammar schools, although I would suggest that both set out to revive the grammar school ethos. Adonis’s view is clear, and helpful. Comprehensive schools were supposed to be hybrids of grammars, secondary moderns and technical schools — all things to all children, so to speak. The problem was that grammar schools only ever constituted about a quarter of English schools, so what in fact happened was that although the names changed, the kind of school did not. Secondary moderns that became comprehensives did not suddenly discover a delight in Latin, whereas many grammar schools that became comprehensives continued with same ethos and became quickly oversubscribed. Instead of the 11 plus, selection took place on the parents’ ability to move house and use sharp elbows.

One of the chief obstacles to reviving grammar schools on a large scale is the teaching profession. This is ‘The Blob’ that Gove talked about, and tried to do something about by supporting initiatives like Teach First. I’m not totally without insight here. I taught for a few years, mostly in comprehensive schools, and therefore I encountered a lot of teachers; and whilst many teachers long to see an end to the modish, trendy orthodoxy in the profession, many do not and remain wedded to those failed and discredited dogmata. Simply opening (or converting) a school and putting a sign outside saying “Grammar School” will not be enough. The entire culture of education needs to change, and that means continuing to unpick decades of pedagogy which is at best suspect and at worst, harmful.

That change has begun, with many comprehensives now revitalised as academies and outperforming coasting grammar schools. A friend of mine recently left her senior post in a grammar school because she felt that the ‘grammar ethos’ had been watered down to the point of disappearance. On the other hand, another friend, now teaching in an non-selective East London academy school remarked that, “It’s just like teaching in a grammar school”. Too many schools still have a long way to go, but a great many others have improved beyond recognition.

Adonis and Gove deserve credit for getting us this far. However, Gove’s error was to centralise far too much — a perennial temptation for Conservatives of the classical liberal cast of mind. In opposition they say, quite rightly, that the state has too much power and politicians should stop interfering, allowing people to shape their own lives and futures. Then, once in government, they become enchanted by their ability to ‘do things’ and come to the conclusion that the problem was not that the state was too powerful, but that it was being run by a bunch of Leftists.  Gove may have liberated many schools from the blobbish control of local authorities, but he simply transferred them to the control of the DfE. That’s fine as long as the DfE is being run by a freedom lover like Gove, but how might the designer-shoe-addicted Angela Rayner use all that power if a Labour government is elected any time soon? The relative freedom enjoyed by academies (N.B. all Free Schools are legally academies) might disappear at the stroke of a pen on a statutory instrument.

Trusting Parents

There is no reason why grammar schools (that is to say selection on the basis of academic ability at the age of 11) should especially appeal to classical liberals. Some of the most selective education systems on earth have been operated by repressive left wing regimes, after all. What should appeal to all classical liberals, though, is freedom, and choice. The State funds education in the UK, but it does so with our money; so taxpayers — in this case parents, especially — ought to have a significant and direct say in how that money is spent. So Mrs May’s words give cause for hope. She talked about lifting bans and giving parents more freedom, rather than announcing yet another government plan to foist a particular vision of education on the people who ultimately pay for it.

Already, voices have been raised by those opposed to allowing people to choose anything for themselves. The nannying, soi-disant Tory MP Sarah Wollaston has said, for example, that she would like to see the abolition of schools with a religious character. Given how popular such schools generally are (even among parents who are not even adherents of a particular faith), this seems to be yet another example of how out of step with ordinary people Dr Wollaston is. The fact that, for example, Catholic schools are more ethnically diverse than ‘community’ schools and have some of the highest proportions of children qualifying for Free School Meals, makes her desire all the more regressive and perverse. But what she and her anti-freedom colleagues are saying is essentially, “We politicians know better what sort of education a child should receive than the child’s own parents.”

What is needed is a genuine transfer of power to parents. Politicians need to stop talking about parental choice and make it happen. An average capitation of £4500 is attached to each child (though in some Local Authorities it might be as little as £3900 or as much as £7000 in London). Parents should be given the right to spend this money (on schooling) as they see fit. While the money could obviously not be made available in used notes that could be spunked on a Caribbean holiday or the 3.30 at Kempton Park, it’s important that we do not return to any idea of ‘vouchers’. Vouchers are not real money, and provide a means by which the state can continue to interfere in parental choice (by, for example, dictating that vouchers will not be ‘legal tender’ in certain kinds of school). It must be real money (in the form of a dedicated pre-paid card or whatever) that may be spent in any institution registered with the DfE; hence any primary, prep, comprehensive, grammar, secondary modern, CTC, ‘Faith’ school, FE College or, indeed, independent school.

Schools would need to be given freedom to expand, if necessary, and it would of course be inevitable that some failing schools would have to close, just as some might be taken over by more successful and expanding competitors. The upheaval caused by the closure of a failed school would be enormous for the children involved, whose education would be interrupted and would need to settle into new schools. But that simply cannot be worse than those children being stuck in a failing school for their entire education. Children, especially the poorest children, only get one shot at education.

It should also be the case that children could move more easily between schools as their needs dictate. Not all children shine at 11, after all. There would be a place for selection in such a system, but ‘selection’ works in both directions. Some children may have the aptitude for a traditional grammar, whereas others may have a gift for music, sport or technical subjects. But what this radical overhaul of education provision would bring about, more importantly, would be a greater variety of school provision, responsive to demand, not bureaucratic whim. Some children thrive in small, intimate schools, some do well in big, academic hot-houses. Some are suited to a more academic (or technical) route, others excel in sport or music, some will have special needs, others may have been failed by their primary school and need to catch up. With the money attached to the child and being spent by his or her parents or carers, not the state or the Local Authority, every child, especially the poorest, would have a better chance of ending up in a school that best suited them and their needs.

But there would be a secondary, and very welcome, effect of giving parents control of their own child’s capitation. It would be good for democracy. At the moment, schooling is like a black box. You fill in the forms and, if you’re lucky, your child gets into a decent school. Most parents probably have no idea how much that education costs. Once parents are aware that they are handing over £4500 (or more) of taxpayers’ money to the school of their choice, then the fiction of ‘free education’ takes another hit. Better informed citizens make better decisions in elections and in turn elect better representatives, especially locally.

And there would still be a role for the state, in the form of local authorities, because some parents are, and will always be, what some may call ‘feckless’. In reality, there are all kinds of reasons why parents may not exercise choices given them — illness, disability, poverty, marriage breakdown, ignorance, (lack of) legal status, and so forth. No one can fail to be impressed by the tenacity of the black single mum in Camden doing everything she can to get her son into Cardinal Vaughan or The Oratory, but let’s agree the idea that every parent will move heaven and earth to get his or her child into the best school is a fantasy. On the other hand, the notion that the state knows better than all parents is patronising, wicked and wrong. As Sir Keith Joseph liked to observe, when people are given responsibility they tend to act more responsibly. Local Authorities, then, would have a role in placing children who had ‘slipped through the net’ for whatever reason, including looked-after children. Local Authorities would be acting in loco parentis (studiorum) in certain cases, not for every child, and would negotiate quotas with each school on an annual basis. Currently, some parents don’t give much thought to which school their child goes to simply because they don’t think there’s much point. Once they realise that have some power, that may well change.

I can understand why so many conservatives are cock-a-hoop at the news that the government is to allow new grammar schools, but just as grammar schools can be championed and encouraged by one government, so they can be diminished and even abolished by another. If we give parents choice, backed up by the cash to make that choice real, then we will achieve lasting reform that no future government would dare undo. Perhaps one day, the Department for Education will be as obsolete as the Department for Prices and Consumer Protection (1974-1979 RIP).