As published in the Sunday Express:
Grammars are a class issue
It is a commonplace myth among the Westminster media to view me as from a deprived background, son of a single mother, brought up on a council estate and all that.
If we want talented children from deprived backgrounds we must expand selective grammar schools
At one level it is all true but as the years go by I have grown to realise that I was a child of privilege.
I was one of an extraordinarily lucky generation. I had the good fortune to go to a grammar school, which opened up for me a whole host of opportunities that would not have been available by any other means.
More to the point 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.
Our origins were the same estates that spawned the Great Train Robbers and the petty gangsters of South London yet our futures were populated with glittering opportunities.
It was an era in which Oxford and Cambridge took more than half of their students from state schools, largely grammar schools.
Then that era came to an end. Because of the bone-headed egalitarianism of the Labour Party and the intellectual cowardice of the Conservatives, the grammar school system was dismantled. The number of grammar schools was cut from 1,300 in 1965 to about 200 today.
The few survivors were the result of hard-fought campaigns to preserve them by Conservative councils. As a result the remaining grammar schools today are mostly in middle-class areas. As a direct result of the small numbers, however, they are brilliant schools that are no longer available to the least well off.
The outcome of all of this? Since the demise of the grammar schools social mobility has ground to a halt. Britain is now one of the most stratified societies in the Western world. Equality of opportunity stopped for children born after 1970 and the post-war “golden era” of social mobility is a rapidly dimming memory.
Those educated in the private school system now dominate all areas of public life despite only about one in 14 children going to fee-paying schools. The judiciary is an extreme example of this with almost three quarters of senior judges privately educated. But the armed forces, the civil service and the diplomatic corps are also dominated by the benefi-ciaries of our two-tier education system.
And before you think that the influence of the best-known public school is limited to dominating the Cabinet remember actors Damian Lewis , Dominic West and Tom Hiddleston are old Etonians.
Even the England cricket and rugby teams have more privately educated players than would be expected. Gary Ballance and Billy Vunipola both went to Harrow School.
It is maybe unsurprising that a nation so obsessed with the upstairs-downstairs drama of Downton Abbey is the most socially stratified society in the Western world but it is also a real problem, one that damages Britain’s social fabric and threatens our position in the world.
Any nation whose hallmark is social elitism is fated to fail. We cannot compete against China, India or Brazil if we insist on educating and selecting the top strata of society not on ability but on parentage. Is it any surprise that so many voters feel ignored when their politicians are chosen from such a small pool? We need a massive expansion of grammar schools in workingclass areas and in our most deprived towns and boroughs.
Of course grammar schools have their problems. We would have to revisit the single-shot finality of the 11-plus exams and we must prevent grammar schools from becoming the preserve of the wealthy. We would also have to provide alternatives for those who aren’t academic.
We cannot continue with our current system where parents can pay for entry to elite institutions and everyone else is lumped together in comprehensives. It benefits no one teaching the weakest pupils alongside the brightest.
If we want the most talented children from the most deprived backgrounds to realise their full potential then we must expand selective grammar schools. Give children a chance, all of them.