Wednesday 15 March 2023

Good Grammar

Whatever I may think of them, why do people assume that I would wish to abolish private schools? While that abolition would preclude anyone from becoming Leader of the Labour Party, that undeniable benefit would be more than offset by the further extension of the power of the Liberal Establishment in academia and the churches, which also crosses over into the media, and of the right-wing Labour machine in local government. I could not possibly want anything less than that.

A stone's throw from a superb secular comprehensive and not far from a very good Catholic one, the fairly modest commercial school that the Church of England maintains near me charges a termly fee for a day pupil of £4,906 or £5,598 depending on the year, plus a compulsory £266 per term for lunch. Three times every year. No one is scrimping and saving to find that kind of money. You either have it, or you do not. If you do, then you also have the houses and holidays, cars and clothes.

Both employability and social mobility are secondary, if any, purposes of education. Primarily, if not exclusively, the purpose of education is education. But in any case, it is laughable to suggest that public or professional life in the Britain of the decades between the Butler Act and comprehensivisation was less public school dominated than it is in the present day. Contrary to what is often assumed, Margaret Thatcher did not go to a state grammar school. John Major failed at his. The only academically successful products of selective state education to have become Prime Minister have been Harold Wilson, Ted Heath and Gordon Brown, and Brown never won a General Election. He was beaten by an Old Etonian. They have the connections. You could have a grammar school in every town, but that would still be true.

What would be taught in revived grammar schools? They would teach what the existing grammar schools taught at the moment. That would not be the imperial system of weights and measures. Well, not unless grammar schools taught that now. No one would be more delighted than I to see Classics taught in every town, but I cannot begin to imagine who would teach it. Private tutoring would go on whatever state education arrangements were in place, as it always has. Grammar schools did nothing about that, they still do not where they still exist, and they never would anywhere. Indeed, the existence of the 11-plus has always actively encouraged the tutoring industry.

There still are grammar schools, with far more pupils than Eton, Jeremy Hunt's Charterhouse and Rishi Sunak's Winchester put together. Where are their products? They may get into Oxbridge, but then what? As for who did not get into Oxbridge these days, commercial schools are often still using the largely coursework-based IGCSE, which has been banned in the state-funded sector because it is too easy, and the marks from which, unlike from A-level, pupils already have when they apply to universities. Always view those schools' stellar results in that light. Clearly, Oxford and Cambridge do.

Both parties have been led into General Elections by people who had been comprehensively educated from the age of 11. Both of those were heavily defeated by public schoolboys. Tony Blair beat William Hague, and David Cameron beat Ed Miliband. No one would describe Hague as undereducated, and that is before comparing him to Blair. You can become a candidate for Prime Minister from a comprehensive school that had never been anything else while you were there, if at all. It is Prime Minister itself that you can be for only seven weeks, without having won a General Election, until the money markets overthrew you in favour of a Head Boy of Winchester. No male product of any sort of mixed secondary school has ever become Prime Minister, and such a possibility has only ever presented itself in the persons of Hague and Miliband. It will not do so at the next General Election.

It is impossible to extrapolate from a handful of extremely unusual London institutions to suggest that a state secondary school's location told you anything about it. I spent seven years as a pupil and eight as a governor of a comprehensive school, not one of those referred to above. It was in the most affluent part of its catchment area, but that said nothing at all about the place, as it still does not.

Let me take you back 31 years, to the beginning of September 1992, three weeks short of my fifteenth birthday. The most inexplicable governor had been appointed to my school. To this day, no one will own up to having had any part in that appointment. I was not yet a member of any party, but I was becoming active politically, and in between more pressing matters, the local Labour operation was vaguely planning to bring me in. Entirely unknown to me, the decision was made that I would at some future time be an acceptable governor, in stark contrast to the one who had just assumed office. I repeat that I was not quite 15 and had no idea that any of this was happening.

Fast forward to the Golden Britpop Summer of 1995. School was at its wit's end, and by then what in those days could in these parts still call itself "the party" wanted to exercise the County Council's power of recall and instead install me with effect from 23rd September, my eighteenth birthday. That would have made me a governor for almost the whole of my Upper Sixth, so school understandably put the kibosh on it, although on the clear understanding that it did want me as soon as was quite decent.

A year later, when the problem governor's term would have been up, then school and the party were aligned and allied in my favour, but the distant Diocese was unconvinced, since at that point I was still the only person who did not know that I was eventually going to go over to Rome. The day had yet to come when the late Bishop Kevin Dunn would promise to initiate my candidacy for this largely Catholic parliamentary seat by publicly anointing me. When I suggested accompaniment by Zadok the Priest, then he replied, "Why not?" He was not joking. Requiescat in pace.

Therefore, I did not become a governor a fortnight after my A-level results, and three weeks shy of my nineteenth birthday. But four years later, I had already been a governor of a primary school for the first of eight years, and I had been safely aboard the Barque of Saint Peter for a year. When I had written to school to request prayers upon my reception, then it had offered a Mass of Thanksgiving. Yes, really. It was the usual weekly Mass, but it was said for that intention. I got a card. The funny governor's days were numbered, and no third term was awarded in 2000. Instead, I came into my inheritance at last. In both cases when I have been made a school governor, one primary and one secondary, the place has initially still had the same Headmaster as when I had been a pupil. At the comp, a mere four years after I had left, he greeted me with, "Good afternoon, Mr Lindsay." "It's all right," I replied, "you can call me David if you like, George."

I keep being told that I ought to be brought back, but that is unlikely to happen in the near future, although the Council no longer has any role in the matter, it is anyway no longer under Labour control, and the Diocese has already caused any problem at that end to disappear into thin air. I am terribly flattered, of course, and I have never stopped knowing a lot of what went on. Yes, I do mean never. The present Governing Body is perhaps a unique concentration of my parliamentary voters; they account for at least a large minority of it. A recent reappointment, after a break of some years, had in the meantime signed my nomination papers at the last General Election. More than one member was a character witness at my sentencing. So never say never, but not for quite a while yet.

Seven years as a pupil there had made me broadly aware that little or nothing could be gleaned from a comprehensive school's relatively fancy postal address, and eight years as a governor gave me a thoroughly detailed appreciation of that fact. People who lack even the former knowledge have little or no experience of the matter, and therefore ought not to pass comment on it. They are also on record that a restored national network of grammar schools could not be staffed and was therefore impossible.