Concern about social mobility, or the lack of it, continues to exercise commentators and politicians. Sir John Major attracted attention not long ago by expressing dismay at what he perceived to be more entrenched social divisions.
As somebody from a working class background who had risen to the top in politics, he seemed to epitomise all that post-war changes had made possible – though his success did attract disparaging comments from some on Left and Right whose remarks reflected their real attitudes and prejudices and continuing sense of superiority.
Sir John’s ambition, when he was prime minister, had been a grammar school in every town, though the rather larger number of secondary modern schools that would have had to accompany them was never mentioned. As the organisation of the local school system was still a matter for local education authorities, there was little chance of his achieving his aim. No attempt by local politicians to restore selection where it had been abolished had ever succeeded.
Grammar schools remained only in the few authorities, like Buckinghamshire, Kent and the Wirral, which had never abandoned selection, and scattered elsewhere around the country where voluntary-aided status had enabled them to thwart efforts to introduce comprehensive systems.
Two other ideas have been suggested recently. The first was that 25 per cent of places in independent schools should be free. This is not new. There were similar experiments in the last century, culminating in the assisted places scheme. The assumptions behind such ideas are revealing:
Parents seeking the best for their children would naturally prefer an independent school, a view which is insulting to the many parents who think differently.
Able pupils cannot do as well in comprehensive schools and colleges, which is inaccurate as well as insulting to those institutions.
By inference, independent schools are full of more able pupils, a questionable assertion even for schools which would consider themselves to be in the premier division.
Social mobility would be promoted by making available to those who could not afford the fees a proportion of free places.
All this ignores the fact that independent schools are unlikely to be interested in those reluctant to embrace their ethos and be able to function in that environment, and that the incidental costs of attending independent schools are not inconsiderable. The outcome of such an approach would be more likely to reinforce prejudices than to encourage social mobility.
More serious was a report that around 150 independent schools were seeking to become free schools. Among those mentioned were some former direct grant grammar schools. The appeal of this for the schools concerned is clear. Instead of having to attract enough parents willing and able to pay the fees, which some such schools have been unable to do, all places would be funded by the state. Recruitment problems would disappear as would financial worries.
But is it likely that such schools would be willing to relinquish control over their admissions? And would they not wish to select pupils on the basis of perceived ability rather than be absorbed into a local comprehensive system from which they had sought to escape by becoming independent?
The consequences of such a development would be serious. Local comprehensive schools would be undermined and a selective system reintroduced without any local debate or decision. A bid by an individual governing body and a decision by the secretary of state would be sufficient to change the character of a local school system.
Sir John might yet get his grammar schools in a few more towns, but at what cost to local democracy and the wishes of local communities – and to any meaningful social mobility?