Tory MP: More grammar schools please

  • 15 November 2011
  • From the section England
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Chatham Grammar School
Grammar schools still exert a powerful pull on the heartstrings of some Conservatives

Decades after the vast majority of grammar schools disappeared into history they still exert a powerful pull on the heartstrings of some Conservative MPs.

The tripartite system of grammar schools, secondary moderns and technical schools - along with the controversial 11 Plus - was the brainchild of RA Butler, Conservative President of the Board of Education in Churchill's wartime coalition.

Introducing free secondary education for all, the 1944 Education Act was by any standards a ground-breaking piece of legislation.

But the selective principle upon which that education was delivered faced mounting criticism.

Twenty years later Harold Wilson's Labour government launched a major drive towards comprehensive education.

Selective education

A battle has since continued between those who see grammar schools as beacons of academic excellence and social mobility and those who dismiss them as socially divisive institutions which reject the majority of children as academic failures at the age of 11.

It is a battle, of course, which the latter have broadly won.

There are now just 164 grammar schools left across the country including a handful in the South West.

A yearning for selective education undoubtedly endures in many Conservative breasts.

However - as David Cameron pointed out in 2007 - the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major did little to halt or reverse the comprehensive revolution despite having 18 years to do so.

By the 1997 election, though, enthusiasm for selection had hardened into a Conservative pledge to provide a "grammar school in every town".

But this happened to coincide with the beginning of a long period of electoral oblivion for the Tories.

Death throes?

Ten years - and five Conservative leaders - later David Cameron decided the commitment to grammar schools was part of the problem rather than the solution.

He dismissed the debate about an educational system largely in its death throes by the time he was born as "pointless" and a "chain around the party's neck".

Conservative MP Gareth Johnson has called on the government to allow more selection

And he criticised those of his colleagues who wanted to "cling on to outdated mantras which bear no relation to the reality of life".

Despite the fury of some back-benchers - and the resignation of a shadow minister - the "grammar school in every town" policy was completely reversed.

Not only have the Conservatives dropped their commitment to build more grammars, they've also retained the absolute ban on the introduction of any further selection in the state sector.

Last week at Westminster the Conservative MP for Dartford, Gareth Johnson, called on the government to relent and allow more selection.

Talking to me on the Politics Show, Tiverton and Honiton's Neil Parish did the same: