During the Blair years, when recalcitrant Conservatives longed for a pledge to open new grammar schools, no class warrior threw himself into the battle against selective education with such ferocity as John Prescott. Most people who failed the eleven-plus exam just got on with their lives and usually became respectable citizens. Not our John: he never got over it and became a Labour MP. Referring in 2017 to the questionable assertion that “Tories cut education spending while saving corporates and millionaires £70bn”, Lord (as by then this class warrior had become) Prescott proclaimed: “Here’s why failing the eleven-plus still makes me bitter and feel inferior.” That’s right: this intensely political question, supposedly about children’s life chances, was, nearly 70 years after he took the exam, actually still all about him.

A year earlier Prescott had revealed the true nature of the nightmare that accompanied his having to attend Grange Secondary Modern School, Ellesmere Port, rather than a grammar school that might have propelled him to Oxbridge and, who knows, the Conservative party. “Love can be cruel,” he wrote. “For an eleven-year-old, break-ups can be devastating. We’d been forcibly separated. Not because we’d grown apart or even because there was someone else. No. We parted because I wasn’t good enough to pass a test.

“She’d managed to pass the eleven-plus. I did not. I sent her a love letter pledging my undying love. She sent it back correcting my spelling and grammar mistakes. It didn’t stop there. My dad Bert promised me and my brother Ray a bicycle if we got to a grammar school. Ray got the bike. I got a twenty-mile bus trip to my secondary modern.”

One hardly knows where to start, but let me try. Lord Prescott’s unnamed inamorata clearly had his best interests at heart in trying to lead him on the path away from semi-literacy and urging him to buck up his command of the English tongue; as is now well known, that was her failure. And let us commend Mr Bert Prescott, who understood the link between effort and reward. His two sons came from an identical gene pool and experienced the same parenting (with its admirable approach to incentivisation) so, appealing though the idea is, one cannot conclude that young John was congenitally thick. It may just have been that he was – and we all knew such boys – lacking in application in a way his brother was not. In the era before saturation television, video games and smartphones, they found it just a bit too tempting to kick around a football a little longer, or play with their catapults and peashooters, or just hang out with their mates cracking jokes. To most lads these are all more alluring pastimes than learning to speak English properly, or training to become  un homme sérieux. We can only speculate that this may have led to the future-Lord Prescott’s undoing.

Fewer of our old boys seem to have ended up in prison than, say, Eton’s

I must declare an interest. I am fanatical about grammar schools. I would put them in every town. This is because I believe in meritocracy and social mobility. The Labour party, of course, believes in nothing of the sort. It likes to control people, and the less educated a person is, the easier he or she is to control. Once you educate a boy or a girl some of them wish to become socialist commissars, to exert that control; but others wish to use their training and abilities to get better and better jobs, buy better and better housing, and even – horror of horrors – spare their own children the failings of the state education system by paying for them to be educated privately.

I attended a grammar school. It was, and is, one of the best in the country. It sent a high proportion of its boys (and later girls, who entered the sixth form) to Oxbridge; I was one such beneficiary, helped unashamedly by good parenting but also by first-class teachers. Most of my contemporaries ended up if not at Oxbridge then at Russell Group universities. Almost all of us have, by any objective standards, done well. I used to sit on the bus to school chatting to fellow pupil Grayson Perry, so the place didn’t just turn out men in suits – and fewer of our old boys seem to have ended up in prison than, say, Eton’s.

Critics of grammar schools say they were hijacked by the middle classes, but it’s interesting how so many who say this have never set foot in one. Both my parents were civil servants, so I must plead guilty. They owned a house and my father, who by the standards of the 1960s and 1970s was a dangerous capitalist, even owned some shares. Other boys had parents who were doctors, teachers and bank managers. But there were also children of farm labourers, lorry drivers and unskilled council workers. I knew their parents; what they all had in common were high personal standards, devotion to their children and a determination that the next generation would go further in life than they had. I have always suspected that what Labour hates about grammar schools is that it’s hard to control the excellent parenting that gives many such children an advantage, and which (while far from absent in the comprehensive system) seems supercharged when a child enters a selective school.

But let us return to Lord Prescott. Leaving aside his inherent personal problems, in most of his comments about selective education he referred again and again to children being “written off” at the age of eleven. This was nonsense. One reason why my own school had such high levels of attainment was that boys were asked to leave before O-level examinations if they had shown they simply weren’t trying. They were replaced by boys from local secondary moderns who were late developers. Similarly, those who performed poorly at O- level did not stay for A-levels; their places were given to boys who had performed excellently outside the selective system, and whose potential could be fulfilled by sending them to a school that knew how to get them to the best universities.

Yet, when bidding for power, David Cameron announced that the Conservatives would not open any new grammar schools to supplement the mere 163 still in existence, many of which have expanded until bursting at the seams. Why on earth should a party committed to advancement, merit and enterprise be so opposed to a system that helps develop and maximise the country’s human capital? I returned to my school to give the prizes away on speech day a few years ago and found a high proportion of the hands I was shaking belonged to boys and girls from the town’s very small Asian community. I was struck by how family dynamics in that culture seem to maximise children’s potential in a way white working-class families often seem to struggle to do. Perhaps we need to revise our view of what constitutes an underprivileged minority.

If the Conservatives don’t care how much they fail to help the working class – and if they don’t, they are beyond stupid – then they should at least worry about how their opposition to grammar schools disobliges the middle class. Many middle-class voters cannot afford private education and reluctantly have to send their children to an underperforming comprehensive. And, with Labour threatening VAT at twenty per cent on school fees, the aggrieved middle-class parent will become a more widespread phenomenon. What better riposte to Labour’s threat than promising a grammar school in every town, for every child capable of benefiting from one, with entry at fourteen and sixteen for late developers? It would also atone for other policies that have battered the middle class in the last fourteen years – the imploding NHS, the absence of a proper system of care for the elderly, punitive taxation, incontinent public spending, the de facto legalisation of burglary and street robbery, uncontrolled migration and so on.

It may well be too late for the Conservatives to win the next election, but it is never a bad idea to put down a marker for the future: especially when it’s also a sign of contrition that would genuinely help those trapped near the bottom, with little chance at the moment of finding a ladder up.

Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham

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Columns, June / July 2024, Opinions, Pond Life

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