It may be a sign of something but each time a new secretary of state for education is appointed it leads to a positive re-evaluation of the last one. (This is not an absolute truth, Michael Gove was held in such low esteem by just about everyone that he has to complete a period of ‘community service’ in the environment, saving bees and wild flowers and hugging puppies before he can be allowed back into civilised circles). Justine Greenwood (educated Oakwood Comprehensive, Rotherham and the University of Southampton) was sacked and replaced by Damian Hinds (educated Altringham RC Grammar School and Trinity College Oxford, spot the difference). Greenwood was less than enthusiastic about Theresa May’s commitment to the re-establishment of grammar schools and selected education in all areas. Hind is an enthusiastic supporter of selective education and his appointment seems to indicate that grammar schools will be firmly back on the Tory policy agenda.
Grammar schools have long held a mystical allure for the Conservative party. It conjures up a world in which education functions to identify an elite and limit the aspirations of the majority. The return to the grammar school is also a commitment to the traditional grammar school curriculum. This is the ‘curriculum of the past’ and the idea that the changing social context within which the curriculum is located requires no consideration. Traditional subjects, in the view of the supporters of the grammar school curriculum, exist because of some form of natural selection and should be unquestioned as long as they continue in their prime function as an elite selection process.
What is disappointing about the re-emergence of grammar school agenda is not the fact that it contradicts research findings and seems to stand in contradiction to the state’s commitment to increased social mobility. What is really disappointing is that the party of government seems to raising to the status of a key policy direction a bankrupt ideological impulse which says no more than let’s return to the 1950’s. The years of curriculum development and innovation count as nothing for the only response to the need for a curriculum which reflects the realities and priorities of the 21st century is to ignore it and return to somewhere in the past in which conservatives felt more comfortable.
The return to a system of selection needs to be resisted because it does not work. The return to the traditional grammar school curriculum also needs to be resisted because it does not meet the needs of pupils and society or progress the journey towards a more egalitarian society. We need to create spaces for a proper debate on the curriculum before we all end up in the 1950’s.