Tuesday, May 22, 2007


And now a little British politics to confuse those who don’t live here, and likely raise the blood pressure of those who do.

David Cameron, the current leader of the conservative party (for those unfamiliar with the parliamentary system, the leader of the party is chosen from elected MPs (similar to congressmen), the party with the most seats in parliament forms the government, and that leader becomes prime minister), has caused a bit of a ruckus. He has denounced the Grammar school system, and declared no conservative government would ever support re-introducing them. His party is in an uproar, as many hanker after the old grammar schools.

Now, and introduction to class warfare British style. Up until the 70’s there was a two tier state school system at the senior (high school) level. There were Grammar schools which where academically selective, and the second tier which was a more prosaic often technical system. Grammar schools where entered by scoring well on a series of tests at the age of 11. Once in, children stayed in, and where given an excellent academic education. There was meant to be no discrimination other than on achievement in the tests.

Society was rather torn on Grammar schools, as middle class children tended to form a higher proportion of the intake. Though it was not meant to discriminate on background, it looked like it did. The fact that many children from working class backgrounds used the Grammar system as a real leg up in life, kind of didn’t matter.

In the seventies, a Labour Government (the Labour party traditionally has been very left wing, often radically so (the current Labour government under Tony Blair is actually quite middle ground, often even conservative in its policies (but that’s a whole other story))) abolished the Grammar system. It levelled the school system and did not allow academic selection to continue. If you lived in a certain area, your children went to the local school.

The problem is, rather than bringing the whole system up to the level of the Grammar school in terms of educational quality, it being a human system, achievement rather dropped to the least common denominator. It has remained a divisive issue ever since. Selection on results has become a political “rude word”. It can’t be spoken, because its deemed that selection would benefit the middle classes rather than society as a whole.

A nonsense of course, but all part of the still evident class system in Britain. There are any number of studies which show that the children of bright parents (by bright I’m using a narrow measure of intelligence around an ability for logic, learning, and problem solving) tend to be bright. Again, lots of studies showing the professional people tend to be more intelligent.

That doesn’t mean less intelligent parents can’t produce geniuses and bright parents can’t produce morons. Genetics isn’t like that, there is an element of dice rolling. Still, the law of averages applies. Professional Middle Class parents will tend to produce bright children.

So, what the abolishment of Grammar schools has done has actually widened the divide. Precocious young things from poor backgrounds now don’t have a means into a good education. It depends on how good the local school is. The middle classes have put a finger up to Government and put their children into private schools. These are doubly selective, first on parental income, then on academic results. I have to admit a bias here, all three of my kids are in two schools which rank in the top twenty of the country (by national test results). They’ve had to pass various tests to get in, and I will pay through the nose to keep them there (they also have to continue to pass tests to stay there too).

Its not right, it re-enforces the class divides rather than reducing them. I really don’t know what Cameron thinks he’s going to achieve. Its also rather hypocritical as he went to Eton (one of the old private schools), and is sending his own children to the same. Yet clearly he thinks this is a point that will make the conservatives electable. Heaven knows why. I just don’t get why selection is a dirty word/

In Canada, which does have a single tier school system, you do have specialist schools which kids get into by results. These might be separate to the main schools, or a part of, but they’re there. No one thinks twice about it. Of course you give bright kids a different education, just like you give musically talented ones specialist teaching, or sporty ones or or or. Its one of those things about Britain, a place I mostly love, that I just don’t get.


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