The questions Peter Hitchens doesn’t answer

ln_864398_bp_11Over the last few days I’ve been engaged in a Twitter debate about grammar schools with Peter Hitchens. There is no chance either of us will change our opinions. He thinks academic selection is super and creates fair admissions. I think no one can predict a child’s life path at 10, and it suggests we value academic children more highly than the rest.  I find it interesting to test my arguments against a bright chap who likes an evidence based approach.

I respect his passion for this subject. I think we may even have a few things in common.

  • We both think education matters and want to find the best method to allocate good schools.
  • Neither of us like the 11+ test as a selection method.
  • We both think the current comprehensive system unfairly awards the most highly rated schools to those who buy a house nearby.
  • We both shop at Waitrose.

You would think the Waitrose point isn’t relevant, but he has made a big deal of a jokey point in my Schools Week article about Waitrose types expecting grammar school places. He thinks I believe that middle class Waitrose types deserve grammar school places. This communication problem is my fault. The line was actually added by the Schools Week editor. I’d made a Waitrose point in a speech at a conference and she said it had stuck with her and she wanted to put it in. The intended meaning is perhaps not clear, but just to clarify: I think Kent grammars are schools for Waitrose types, not that people who use upmarket supermarkets deserve grammar school places!

  • We’re both Christians.

This has nothing to do with anything much, but I like to think it helps us respect each others differences. I know that even if we massively disagree and get cross in this debate, we have both read the same book that suggests we need to be decent to each other.

Mr.Hitchens’ vision

I think I have an understanding of the grammar school system Mr.Hitchens supports. It is a whole lot better than the system now operating in Kent. It would be a German style system with mutual consent between parents and teachers to claim grammar school places. So no 11+ test. There would be flexibility to go to grammar school later too. There would be some sort of technical and practical schools, though I am less clear about these ideas. He also mentioned reforms to primary schools, though I was surprised that these were curriculum based and not admissions reform. Many primary school places are won by the ‘selection by wealth’ postcode admission system he dislikes. He seems to have no answer to this problem. He has also mentioned that too many young people go to university and that degrees are worth less than they used to be.

Ms.Waitrose’s vision

I think a grammar school system is wrong, I have listed the reasons many times so there is no need to do so again. I think the comprehensive system as it stands could be improved, and particularly our school admissions. I accept Mr.Hitchens point that good state schools can sometimes be won by wealth in our present set-up. I support fairer admission policies and would like to see changes to the way we award school places. I did tweet four or five school admission methods that could prevent schools becoming socially selective.  They are complex, they might be combined, one has not even been tried on a large scale. I am not going to apologise for not explaining them in 140 characters on Twitter. I was recently involved with a plan for a cross-party group to look at fairer admissions. Sadly it got cancelled due to the potential return of grammar schools.

I will write about the varied admission methods that could help divide school places fairly soon, but my main point is that it lacks imagination to say that ‘nothing can be done’ to fix comprehensive admission problems. Just like ‘selection by ability’ covers many different implementations with some methods better or worse than others, comprehensive admissions vary and they can be good, bad, or indifferent. I would support new methods being trialed in different authorities to see which works best.

I also accept that the brightest pupils in comprehensive schools need more attention. This is not hard to have a decent plan for, it just hasn’t been done. I don’t know why there is no political will to make this happen. The government’s new school accountability measures do check schools for the progress made by their pupils, and the progress by ability group. I think this could be used to drive better standards for high achieving pupils. We have enough tests in schools already, schools know who their brightest children are, Ofsted or other accountability measures could be used to check results for these pupils.

I’d also like to see specialist sixth form colleges for those with the best GCSE results. ‘Academic selection’ is necessary and happens in every school system, but the age is important. I think  it should be at an age when a child has had full opportunity to decide what they want to do, and a chance to prove what they can do. I don’t think academic selection should be used as a fix for admissions problems. Results for the most able pupils and school admissions are two completely separate issues. These are very different problems and there is no logical need for them to be combined.

I believe that every child is different. This is why I get frustrated by grammar school fans who think there are only three types of child, the practical sort, the technical sort, the academic sort. How silly, restrictive and wasteful of talent. We  also seem to forget that some bright ten year olds who get sent to an academic focused grammar school, might also be disadvantaged by this choice.

So, I support a broad curriculum for all children until they choose themselves whether they will take A levels and go to university, or  take a route to a career they find interesting. I wrote a few more points on all this at the bottom of the post here.

I also want to point out that school admissions are one small thing, messed up by having so many methods and factors that drive school demand. Faith, academically selective, partially-selective, fair banding, aptitude tests, private schools, free schools, good, bad, or outstanding ratings. Despite all this many children do just apply to a local school and it’s a good school, and I mean that in a true sense and not the Ofsted rating one.

I met a Japanese civil servant at an education conference recently. He told me he was bemused by our school system. He pointed out that in England we label schools, and we label some bad, and then we stand back and watch them. He pointed out that if a school is under-performing in his country they fill it straight away with good teachers and make sure it stops being a bad school. I liked the simplicity of his point. The grammar/comprehensive debate is obviously one small aspect of creating a successful education system.

The problems with Peter Hitchens arguments

We have covered a lot in our debate, but these are the questions I feel Mr.Hitchens has not answered in a satisfactory way.

Why 10? What evidence is there that this is the right age to divide children between different school types?

Peter’s argument that a school divide decided at 10 is the right one is based on history not science.


He has no evidence other than ‘being human.’ This is odd as he prides himself on using evidence for most things.

Historically this age wasn’t even the supported plan. The government wanted to use the far more sensible age of 13, but faith schools didn’t want to reorganise their schools to fit this idea. So the 11+ was devised and secondary schooling began at 11. Few school systems worldwide divide children between school paths at this young age. As far as I’m aware they all do it based on either historical or practical grounds, and not because they have evidence that ability is fixed at age 10.

I have also heard of nowhere in the world wishing to lower its age of first academic selection to 10/11, but I have heard of some raising the age to 13/14.

What is he going to do with all the children who want to go to university?

destinationsAt present 48% of young people go on to higher education. It’s all very well for Peter Hitchens to stamp his foot and say he doesn’t like that; but parents want it, young people want it, and even when university fees are raised no one gets put off, they still want a degree. Graduates do still earn on average £9,000 a year more than those without degrees, so it is no wonder the ‘Waitrose Elite’  (his phrase) want higher education. But how does this fit if grammar schools are to become the new academic route?

Grammar schools would surely need to educate every child who was capable of A levels and university. It wouldn’t stretch any pupil to their full potential if they were attending a ‘less academic’ school but still planned to go to university at 18.

If the 50% of children taking A levels need academic schooling in grammar schools this will also cause problems with demand for this type of school. Every parent who thinks their child is capable of university will want a grammar school place for their child. If this demand is not met then we will have the fabled ‘beseiged grammar schools’ that Peter Hitchens talks about so much. He blames the ‘besieged grammar’ issue for a tutoring culture, the catchment area price rises near grammar schools, and most significantly the low number of disadvantaged children currently educated in grammar schools.

So how do we get more poor children to university if we reduce the number of university places, or if we offer less than 50% of academic schools? I am confused. It feels like social mobility going backwards if we start to educate less young people to degree standard. Perhaps this is desirable, but no government would ever get this supported by voters. Universities would also have a hissy fit.

So perhaps the only way to create a new grammar school system would be to turn half our secondary schools into academic grammar schools? This also feels odd. Grammar schools would no longer be elite academic schools. If every other school was a grammar school they would feel like regular local schools. Would they all recruit highly qualified teachers as they  tend to do now? Would they be a mix of good and bad just like regular schools? Isn’t it just simpler to make sure every school gives an academic education to every child  that is capable of A levels?

How does it work for pupils to move between schools?

To get around the problem that 10 is a flawed age to judge ability grammar-school-fans need to add extra entry points to their academic schools. I have no idea how this works in practise. Aren’t there supposed to be different curriculums in the technical or practical schools? Will a thirteen or sixteen year fit in or will they have been learning different things?

I also have no idea how schools are supposed to deal with the fluctuating pupil population this involve. Around 22% of children are inaccurately assessed by the 11+ at 10, so there could be a lot of school movement. It seems we’d have to find a way to add unlimited extra places in grammar schools. We’d also be causing awful problems with finances, staffing and morale, for non-selective schools. We’d be turning them into places that children who do well need to escape from.

I know Mr.Hitchens does not support high-stakes tests for grammar school admissions, but I  would not put it past this government to create new grammars with an 11+ and extra tests for children who develop later. So we could have the 12+, the 13+, the 14+ and instead of buckling down to work children will be forever trying to pass these tests to move schools. The tutoring industy will love it.

I have one friend who failed the 11+ but caught up academically after the age of 10. He was told he should move to a grammar school. He did this, missed his friends and moved back to his secondary modern. A two tier education system simply can’t cope with this very human part of schooling. The plain fact is that children hate moving schools. There’s also evidence that it sets back their academic progress when it happens.

Theresa May talks about grammar schools as an example of ‘meritocracy’ but if these schools were truly about merit then pupils who performed poorly in grammar school would be asked to leave. No grammar-school-fan would dare to propose this. It rarely even happens at sixth form. So we have a system that is about ‘winning’ a special academic school, not about deserving an academic school. Too often a grammar school place is won by parents buying a house in a grammar school catchment area, paying for a prep school or 11+tutor, and popping to Waitrose for some shopping…

I know Peter Hitchens wants to fix that. I also know Waitrose shoppers win good schools in comprehensive areas too… But I can not see how grammar school admissions can be truly fair unless there is movement in and out of the school to ensure enough places. I also wish Theresa May would research why the word meritocracy was invented.

How does this fit our modern needs for a skilled and adaptable workforce?

If we were designing a school system from scratch would we really divide our schools into two or three narrow types based around 1950s style notions of workforce needs? I think we would be better off giving children a flexible education with a range of opportunities to suit the varied work on offer today. An ‘academic’ child might benefit from technical subjects, an ‘artistic’ child might benefit from entrepreneurial skills, and what about the academic/artistic/no-box-actually-fits, sort of child, who likes programming, volunteering at a children’s group, reading literature, and wants to be a landscape gardener when they grow up? How many school types would we need to fit the needs of our complicated and uncategorizable children?

A broad range of experiences and a chance to find success in an arena that suits each child is so much better than academic selection at 10. This is fortune-telling children’s futures at an age where they still enjoy bedtime stories.


I’ve enjoyed my recent debate with Peter Hitchens, it has made me question my ideas and explore them from new angles. I am more sure than I was before that a school divide at 11 is a flawed idea. Of course I can’t do much about the government’s  current scheme for a few scattered grammar schools and other random school changes. It is a huge shame that each new government just tinkers around the edges of our school system. We’ve ended up with a mess of fragmented policy and half thought out ideas. I’d welcome an ambitious plan for education created by teachers and experts, not politicians.

Obviously I’d like a plan for comprehensive education, with a focus on helping the children whose parents don’t shop at Waitrose.



7 thoughts on “The questions Peter Hitchens doesn’t answer

  1. Oh, sorry, got distracted. Not much. Mr Young is one of main obstacles to grammar schools. Whole point of them is the special ethos of the school, which cannot be obtained by these partial methods, or streaming etc.


    • Babbling is not related to where one was educated. Eg: There are plenty of babbling eejits educated at Eton College.


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