The grammar problem

Adam Wright

The return of grammar schools to the political agenda of the UK government should be a huge concern for progressives. What’s of even greater concern is how the Tory government has attempted to articulate the proposals within the discourse of social mobility.

Labour has strongly criticised the proposals in Parliament. It is quite right to do so. The evidence against academic selection is so overwhelming that it is hard to understand how the debate is still alive.

But, unfortunately, Labour is partly to blame for the continued belief in grammar schools and academic selection. There have always been those in the party reluctant to abolish grammars. The reasons for this are numerous and politically complex and, on the brink of a resurgence in academic selection, I feel that they are worth confronting.

To begin with, we must go back to the political debates in Labour in the 1920s. In 1922, the eminent Fabian intellectual R.H. Tawney wrote a pamphlet, Secondary Education for All, which Labour drew heavy influence from, followed by another, Education: the Labour Party, in 1924. Tawney was an advocate of a universal model of secondary education available to all children from the age of eleven. However, he was also a believer in grammar schools and was criticised at the time by more radical voices in Labour, namely the Teachers’ Labour League, for not advocating a comprehensive secondary school system. Tawney apparently ‘saw no incompatibility between the elitist aspects of the grammar school and arguments for social equality’.[1]

In these early years of the Labour party, Fabians like Tawney and Sidney Webb established a gradualist and pragmatic education policy stance based around the relationship between education and economic efficiency. Academic selection and the inclusion of grammar schools within a universal secondary system were deemed adequate in promoting access to opportunity and social mobility for academically able working class children, whilst providing the rest of the working class with the skills necessary for improving productivity in the industrial workplace, generating higher wages and better working conditions for the working class.

In contrast, the Teachers’ Labour League and, from 1927, the National Association of Labour Teachers (NALT) pushed a far more radical agenda. They were partly influenced by the socialist idealism of Keir Hardie, who saw education as a ‘means to freedom’, the purpose of which ‘was not to increase earnings but to improve quality of life’. There was a belief that the curriculum of education needed to reflect the ideological principles of socialism, to generate a social and political consciousness among the next generation of workers. This agenda waned a little after the Teachers’ Labour League disaffiliated from Labour, but there remained in the NALT a firm commitment to abolishing grammar schools in favour of ‘multilateral’ schooling, the term used at the time for non-selective or comprehensive education.

It was clear that throughout the 1920s and 1930s the gradualist, pro-grammar education policy was the more dominant. Despite the TUC and the London Labour Party adopting the NALT line on abolishing grammars in the 1930s, the majority of party members still had faith in grammars and left out any mention of multilaterals from its education policy. It was only towards the end of the 1930s that the idea of multilateral schooling was considered as one part of a “tripartite” model of education which would also include grammars. It became a way of subsuming demands for a comprehensive model of schooling under a more moderate policy agenda and uniting the party under a goal of “secondary education for all”.

The culmination of this period of consolidation and muted dissent was the 1944 Education Act. The 1944 Act was clearly Conservative-driven in the war government, but was broadly accepted by Labour as a clear achievement of their aim to provide “secondary education for all”. However, the implementation of the Act was down to Labour’s government under Attlee in 1945. It is a common misconception that the 1944 Education Act brought in the tripartite system, of which academic selection through the 11+ exam was to be a defining characteristic: the act left open the possibility of alternative models of schooling despite the Conservatives strongly favouring the tripartite system.

But Attlee had minimal interest in the debates over education systems. He supported grammars and so did his education secretary, Ellen Wilkinson, who set out to focus on rebuilding war-damaged schools and raising the school leaving age, not rock the boat by challenging the conventional wisdom of academic selection. Her successor, George Tomlinson, followed a similar line. Both ministers actively discouraged Labour local authorities from creating multilateral schools.

Labour implemented a tripartite system of secondary education for a number of reasons, not just because the leadership was fond of grammar schools. There was much support in the rank-and-file of the party also, many seeing grammar schools as a means for working-class children to achieve higher status, with strength over the untested and risky new proposal of the multilateral. The pressure on the government for economic reconstruction also meant it was sensible not to spend unnecessarily on overhauling existing grammar schools. Labour was also either unable or unwilling to go up against the civil service in the Ministry of Education; it strongly supported the tripartite model. Finally, there was considerable pressure from Catholics, at the time representing a large portion of their working-class electoral base, who strongly opposed plans to secularise denominational schools, which led them to oppose multilaterals.

While Labour stood in the wilderness years of the 1950s, the intellectual debate shifted, mainly thanks to one man: Anthony Crosland. Pressure from the NALT and the National Union of Teachers led to a vague and unconvincing commitment to comprehensive schooling in the manifesto for the 1951 election in which Labour suffered defeat. But in 1956, Crosland published The Future of Socialism, in which he made a scathing critique of the tripartite system, calling it ‘the most divisive, wasteful and unjust of all the aspects of social inequality’.[2]

Despite being considered a revisionist on the right of the party, Crosland was a firm opponent of the ideology of meritocracy and academic selection. He believed supporting meritocracy in a society full of existing inequality was pointless and argued that a meritocracy based on narrow economic ideas would help only those with marketable skills, undermining other positive human attributes useful in building and maintaining a fair and democratic society. The education system was seen by Crosland as a serious alternative to nationalisation in achieving socialism, but this could only be achieved through the abolition of selective schools, both grammars and independent schools.

In 1965, Crosland had his chance to implement his vision of education: he was made education secretary by Harold Wilson. However, Crosland and Labour were in two minds on education. While Crosland was determined to tackle issues of educational inequality, his party’s wider goals were demanding the prioritisation of economic efficiency. It was, nevertheless, an opportune moment to roll out the comprehensive principle, and Crosland did so. In fact, Crosland managed to change a vast number of local authorities to comprehensive schooling without needing legislation. He sent out a circular (10/65) to give the local authorities the impression of an imminent abandonment of the tripartite model, spurring them to take the early initiative. It was a cunning use of soft power, but it meant that grammar schools were never officially abolished and they remained in a number of local authorities. Crosland never achieved his wish of abolishing every last grammar school.

The missed opportunity in the 1960s to do away with academic selection was matched by New Labour’s reluctance to do so in the 1990s. Like the Wilson governments, New Labour wanted to balance the economic and social demands on education, but it was also were committed to the quintessentially Third Way policy of “standards, not structures”.

There was pressure on Labour in opposition to take a stance against grammars. Labour’s education policy immediately pre-Blair was fairly radical, particularly under shadow education secretary Ann Taylor. Blair’s education policy paid little attention to the debates previously and focused on improving standards and modernising the market-based schooling system that had formed out of 1988 Education Reform Act. The determination of Blair to avoid changing existing structures meant that when Labour won in 1997 there was no attempt to remove academic selection. This infuriated many party members who had heard David Blunkett at party conference pledge “no more selection”. Apparently he meant no more selection. Even that was untrue: New Labour did later expand selection by ability by allowing city academies to select a proportion of their intake. Moreover, to many in New Labour, comprehensive had become a dirty word. Alastair Campbell referred derogatorily towards the “bog-standard comprehensive”. Comprehensive education was seen as outdated, despite academic selection being even more outdated and rigorously critiqued by experts.

Thus, grammar schools remain a part of a very complex hotchpotch system of different types of secondary school. Labour is right to oppose plans to increase the number of them and should in fact go further in calling for their abolition. Labour has been wrong in the past to support grammar schools and to ignore opportunities when it has been in power to abolish them. We need a dynamic 21st century comprehensive system which tackles the vast inequalities in our society. Labour must aim to produce a strong post-selection education policy ready for its return to government.


[1] Brooke, S. (2008) Labour’s War: The Labour Party during the Second World War, Oxford: Oxford University Press

[2] Crosland, A. (1956) The Future of Socialism, London: Jonathan Cape

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