Originally published as the foreword to “The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools: A Debate”, a collection of essays compiled by the think tank Civitas:
Since the 1970s, when most local authorities closed down their grammar schools, social mobility has taken a nosedive.
As a result, there are now far fewer people from state-educated backgrounds in huge swathes of society’s upper echelons, whether it is in the law, accountancy, the civil service, the judiciary or even politics.
Grammar schools provided among the best educational outcomes in the world throughout much of the 20th century.
We generated large numbers of Nobel Prize winners, and we were world leaders in science and other disciplines to a far greater degree than a country of 60 million has a right to expect.
Undoubtedly, grammar schools provided tremendous opportunities to those who could not afford private education, and I should know.
I was lucky enough to benefit from just such an opportunity.
I was surrounded by youngsters from deprived backgrounds, council estate children from Clapham Junction to Brixton.
Every single one of them was given a decent shot at a reasonable career.
Many went to top universities, a contemporary became the England rugby captain and a school predecessor became the head of the British Civil Service.
It was a huge tragedy when we closed off such opportunities to those who most needed them when successive governments scrapped grammar schools.
The few remaining grammar schools are nothing like the motor for social mobility that they used to be.
This is partly due to the fact that their rarity has turned them into the preserves of the sharp-elbowed middle classes; but this is also due to a massive failure in public policy, a failure in confidence in high quality education for bright kids.
As a result, it is impossible to read too much into their impact within the current system.
Of course, the grammar school system had its weaknesses.
Vitally important life decisions rested on one exam taken at age 11, and if you failed then you were out of the academic fast-stream.
And a series of governments never properly invested in technical schools, the other side of the policy coin.
But the problems with dividing children up according to a single academic test do not mean that the problem lies with the selective system, and to blame grammars for the failure in the other half of the school system is absurd.
All these issues can be addressed within a selective education system without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
For a start, there is no reason why selection needs to take place solely at 11, or need be so permanent.
The stark choice between grammar schools and technical schools can be softened by providing a range of options, including faith schools and single-sex schools.
The coalition Government’s academy system and the free school system are working towards this, but far too slowly and such schools are still too constrained by the dead hand of Whitehall.
What we need is a system that provides a broad array of options. Choice, for parents and pupils is the key.
The fact is that we already have a two-tier education system, one where selection is governed largely by wealth – whether through fees or covertly through house prices – rather than ability.
In other words, we have a two-tier system based on injustice not justice, wealth not talent, and in the interests of the elite rather than the interests of the nation.
There is no silver bullet to reviving social mobility in Britain, but nationwide selective education is a key piece in the policy puzzle that will create a ladder of opportunity for talented and hard-working youngsters from less privileged backgrounds.