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An ‘important’ and ‘fresh look’ at academic selection? Review of ‘A Revolution Betrayed’ by Peter Hitchens

  • 30 January 2023
  • By Nick Bryars
  • This review of A Revolution Betrayed by Peter Hitchens has been kindly written for HEPI by Nick Bryars, who has taught in two different grammar schools and is currently Head of Economics and Business at a grammar school in Stratford.
  • Last Friday, HEPI published an alternative review of the same book here, to which Peter Hitchens responded over the weekend here.

This is an important new book on the history of grammar schools. Peter Hitchens brings a fresh perspective to a debate which has enraged voices on the left and the right at least since the original Circular 10/65, which began the process of abolition of most of the system of selective education that had been set up by the Butler Education Act (1944). That process really lasted over a period of about 20 years until the mid-1980s in England and Wales, although it was completed much more quickly in Scotland and much more slowly in Northern Ireland.

Much of what Hitchens says about the closure of the grammar schools will be familiar to readers (not least thanks to pieces on the HEPI website here, here and here). He alleges that the schools’ closure has led to a catastrophic decline in academic standards, that the grammar schools had no real friends politically – not even in the Conservative Party – and that the purpose of their abolition was not educational, but political and philosophical because a section of the British left wanted to make the country a very different society from that which it had hitherto been.

What is genuinely new in this book is Hitchens’s focus on the secondary modern schools. Any right-thinking person must surely be shocked by the revelation that the Attlee Government ‘deliberately discouraged (secondary moderns) from putting their pupils through public examinations. They were genuinely intended to be untroubled by the annoying demands of examiners … It is now obvious that this policy robbed hundreds of schools of purpose and status. It also helped to make them unpopular.’

Hitchens draws heavily on the work of Dick Stroud who points out that, once they were allowed to be entered, 39.4% of pupils at modern schools were taking public exams by 1960. In 1983, a report for the National Council for Educational Standards by Baroness Cox and Dr John Marks ‘found that pupils at grammar and modern schools got more GCE O-level results than pupils at comprehensives, both nationally and within the same social group.’ [Hitchens’s emphasis] These were not the intellectual and academic wildernesses of popular educational folklore.

Hitchens also deals effectively with the allegation that grammar schools were the preserve entirely of the middle classes. He quotes, in an appendix, the biographies of notable alumni and alumnae of grammar schools, such as the Attenborough brothers and (my personal favourite) Terry Burns, Permanent Secretary to the Treasury from 1991 to 1998, and ex-pupil of Houghton-le-Spring Grammar School.

It is noticeable from reading books such as Charles Moore’s biography of Mrs Thatcher how much the actors in her career more and more came from private schools as grammar schools were phased out (not least when she was Secretary of State for Education and Science). His evidence is not just anecdotal on this point; for example, ‘The Gurney-Dixon Report (of 1954) records that 64.6 per cent of grammar school pupils come from working-class backgrounds, though these are predominantly from the skilled working class (43.7 per cent).’

Hitchens’s real point, and one with which I find it impossible to disagree, is that these changes were not educational but political. They were intended to ‘generate a different and less conservative form of education’. It is interesting that the reformers of the 1960s and 1970s rejected the term ‘common school’ (unlike those of the 1940s) in favour of ‘comprehensive school’. I wonder if this were because it sounded too much like the Book of Common Prayer, a point which Hitchens does not make but which I suspect might intrigue him.

Comprehensive schools, according to Eric James, a defender of grammar schools and Vice-Chancellor of York University when Hitchens attended it in the 1970s said that, according to Hitchens, ‘it would also lead to a revolution in learning, the widespread dismantling of the former required knowledge of literature and history, and the dethroning of the old-fashioned elitism of the universities.’

Hitchens has become something of a cross between Cassandra and Eeyore in recent years. In this vein he concludes this book thus:

Half a century of secret-police-enforced Communism in the prison state of East Germany had not managed to stifle or suppress the case, or demand, for selective secondary state education. So grammar schools were rapidly revived there in 1989 after decades of Communist comprehensive schooling. But in this country, where even nominal Conservatives have found it convenient or easy – or just cheaper – to embrace egalitarian dogmas, this good cause is utterly lost.

HEPI’s balloon debate on the right age for starting academic selection (11, 14, 16, 18 or never), which featured speeches by Ralph Lucas, Kenneth Baker, Bill Watkin, Mary Curnock Cook and Sol Gamsu, can be watched back here.

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