Letter from London – Levelling down vandalism

EducationWorld October 2018 | Education World International News

Readers of EW, which does so much to promote the quality of education in India and expose government failures, may be unaware about the great education mess in the UK. Recent media headlines in London are depressing.

Britain lagging behind in global education league’. ‘Private school pupils get nearly five times as many top grades in new exams’. There is an increasing and dangerous polarisation between private and state schools, with the depressing result that Britain has slipped even further down the international league table of social mobility which, when I was a boy, it topped. Why has this happened, and what can India learn from it?

One reason is the destruction of the independent direct grant grammar schools, so called because, although they admitted fee-paying pupils who passed a separate entrance examination of high standard, the majority enjoyed totally free education paid for by direct grants from the Central and local governments if they passed the government’s ‘11+’ examination taken at that age. This enabled children of merit from humble backgrounds, whose parents couldn’t afford the fees, to get an excellent academic education that would develop their capabilities for their own benefit and of society. I was one of the latter class. My father was sent into a Lancashire cotton mill to work when he was 14, but I was able to attend the local grammar school and win a scholarship to Cambridge University, and get an excellent higher education which has stood me well in adulthood.

Abolition of direct grants grammar schools in the 1970s was one of the most foolish acts of vandalism by any British government in my lifetime. These schools were great social levellers. They helped to create an educated, responsible middle class that acts as a community gyroscope in every society, stabilising the whole system.

When direct grants were abolished, grammar schools had to decide whether to join the new comprehensive system or go it alone as private schools. For the best among them such as the Manchester Grammar School which ranked academically with the top private schools of the country, it was relatively easy to transform into private independent schools, but so many could not go it alone and entered the comprehensive system, which was a disaster. The result has been a terrible waste of ability and talent.

But there is another reason for the dangerous decline in the quality of government provided education, at the secondary and especially, tertiary level. In one of the Postscript page snippets (August 2018), the editor rightly condemned the pernicious influence on education of “Nehruvians, Bolshies and jholawalas” in India during the past 70 years. In my next despatch, I intend to expose what our own jholawalas are doing in Britain, and it will shock you.

(Dr. Peter Greenhalgh is a former professor of classics at Cambridge and Cape Town universities, a former investment banker and author of several books)

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