Katherine wrote a reply to a piece I wrote on grammar schools . This is my response.

Hi Katherine, I think you would struggle to get more than a wafer between our positions in practical terms. While I am proud to be paired with Scruton I don’t think we should be reserving all the cleverest teachers for the brightest children. I am not in the game ‘just’ to pass on knowledge either.

As I outline in my original piece:

‘I am actually staking my career on the possibility that we CAN create that intellectual ethos that will stretch the most able in MORE schools than there will EVER be grammars. I think it should be possible to create that ‘critical mass’ within most schools if we prioritise it. I am hoping that changes in teacher recruitment, curriculum and a rejection of progressive pedagogy will be enough to create intellectually buzzing environments in many more schools across the country. I think we must try this solution first because many more pupils will benefit if we are successful.’

However, I don’t wish to cravenly (and boringly) suggest a false consensus. I think you’re right and we do differ and you correctly suggest this does illustrate that we sit on different positions on the liberal to conservative continuum.

At the heart of my piece is the argument that ANY decision will have good and ill effects and that an ideal solution is not possible. This is a classic conservative perspective –rejection of the notion that mankind is perfectible and thus suspicion of your more ‘idealistic’ position. I think you make my point for me when you agree that Michaela needs a critical mass of super bright staff to make a difference. As you say:

‘ At Michaela, we take children who were years behind their chronological reading age on entry and have them writing glorious essays on Macbeth within 2 years. If we didn’t have super bright staff (and I don’t just mean teachers), we wouldn’t be able to do that.’

Unless there is an infinite supply of ‘super bright staff’, if some schools have the critical mass necessary to build a flourishing intellectual climate then others will necessarily be unable to provide that climate. If a resource is finite but beneficial to all then difficult, non-ideal, decisions inevitably need to be made about the distribution of that resource. The failure of most comprehensives to create anything close to the flourishing intellectual environments of some selective schools suggests that they have either squandered their resources or spread them too thinly. Spreading the finite resource (staff and pupils) too thinly ends up benefiting no one and so we have to make decisions about where to ‘clump’ the resources (create a critical mass). There is no ideal solution to this. Bright children will go further than otherwise when clumped together and provided with bright staff. Scruton argues that this ends up benefitting the whole of society. They will not be stretched in the same way if this clumping doesn’t happen. Less able children will benefit enormously from bright, intellectually driven staff too. I’m torn here between competing beneficial outcomes.

I think we probably don’t have the same definition of a ‘flourishing intellectual environment’ or at least that your vision is again idealistic compared to mine. I wouldn’t use great essay writing to illustrate intellectual climate. I am sure climate is linked to increased academic performance but to me it isn’t the same thing. I’ve taught countless very bright and less bright children whose knowledge of history and quality of essays (I like to think!) are greatly improved through my teaching. I hope they have a greater interest and appreciation of intellectual pursuits thanks to their schooling. But they are different from the ‘keenies’ that thrive on intellectual pursuit and tend to disproportionately contribute to a school’s ‘flourishing intellectual climate’. I don’t doubt that Michaela has created a climate in which more children of all abilities have developed intellectual interests (I think what you’ve achieved is amazing). I’m less convinced that it is possible to persuade all or most children to become ‘keenies’ (in the sense I outline). I think this is a utopian vision that has never existed before and so is most unlikely to in the future. This means I do think some children are more innately driven by interest in intellectual pursuits, placing a higher value on them and thus will benefit from being clumped together.

Ultimately my argument amounts to a belief that we can’t spread our resources too thinly but can probably still get a real benefit for more children with a thinner distributions of bright staff and pupils than a grammar school system allows i.e. my position is pragmatic rather than based on belief an ideal is possible.

Clearly I think knowledge (as opposed to ignorance) is the highest priority of education. That does not mean I haven’t been angered and driven to act having realised how our education system needlessly fails so many children. Children can be given greater equality of opportunity and it is shameful therefore that they are not. The problem is that most social mobility arguments are underpinned by the socialist assumption that there should be equality of outcome. As a conservative I think that this is dangerous idealism (as communism illustrates by pushing these ideas to their logical conclusion), doomed to fail and inimical to freedom.

Image result for birbalsingh

Wish I’d been there to hear Roger Scruton at Michaela…


4 thoughts on “Grammar Schools – a reply to Katherine Birbalsingh

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