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The reverse Midas-touch of government - turning gold into dross

I have heard many provocative views on the grammar school argument. I wonder whether an underlying principle hasn't been lost.

I am partial to anything created by Alfred the Great, and as he is said to have established the first grammar schools, to teach Latin grammar, I am partial to them. I am also partial to good things created by people and thousands of British people endowed grammar schools so that children, no matter their background, could receive an education. A text search of grammar school in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography returns 218 pages with 20 persons per page and 4360 entries. The men and women who attended grammar schools were the sons and daughters of drapers and market gardeners, farmers, solicitors and vicars, the latter often as poor as church mice. They included Isaac Newton, Horatio Nelson, my great hero John Lilburne, and Margaret Thatcher, as well as Roger Helmer, MEP, my co-blogger, David Abbott, and my friend Ashish Garg, who attended grammar school in Uttar Pradesh.

By 1891, 93.6% of British men could write (James Bartholomew, The Welfare State We're In). In the early 20th century the government decided to get into education big time, and it has been downhill ever since. One of the things the government did was to seize control of independent grammar schools, and shut many of them down.

Yesterday Conservative education spokesman David Willetts asserted that the government should no longer support grammar schools because they teach too many children from middle class families and not enough from disadvantaged families. Those disadvantaged children have been in government schools, and naturally the government takes no responsibility for not having taught them enough between the ages of seven and eleven to be able to enter selective grammar schools.

This being said, I think Boris (educated in public school) Johnson has a point when he writes that the 11-plus exam necessary for entry to grammar schools mortified children and outraged many parents. He also notes that “We need to give teachers more autonomy, more power to discipline, and to liberate them and their pupils from the drudgery of over-testing. We need whole-class teaching. . .phonetics. . .”

Judging by test results, we need independent schools. Why not turn toward the extremely successful Dutch education system, whose independence resembles the British system before government took hold of it? “The key to the different organisation of schools in Holland is freedom. Article 23 of the Dutch constitution guarantees freedom of education. They interpret this as the freedom to found schools, to organise the teaching and to determine the principles on which the school is based. So anyone who can gather enough pupils to make a viable school is entitled, as of right, to public funds both to create the buildings and pay for the pupils. What the Dutch call the private sector in education is not fee-paying, but simply run by non-state bodies.” Dutch schools thrive on both competition and government support. If they do not teach children well, they lose the support of parents and close. They are motivated not by education fads but by results.

Significantly, "there is no difference in schooling between rich and poor, but there is a huge variety of types of schools — religious, Montessori and conventional — all with an insistence on standards." Every school is required to meet the government's independent standard reviews.

Conservatives studied Dutch schools in 2001. One could wish they had retained those lessons . . .