Ian Austin, the Labour MP for Dudley, recently argued in the House of Commons that the state should fund places in independent schools.
If we were to do this, he argued, more places at such schools would go to the able rather than the affluent and such a move would be one step towards the Holy Grail that is increased social mobility.
When I read about his speech, almost heretical for a Labour MP, I decided to invite him to come to King Edward’s School.
Little did I know when I made that invitation that Ian Austin was, in fact, a King Edward’s School reject: he had failed the 11-plus for this school in the old days when the vast majority of places at King Edward’s School were free. My only consolation was that his brother was more successful and attended the school in the 1980s.
Ian was sufficiently forgiving to lay aside this ancient rejection and accept my invitation. He came on a good day: lunch was delicious and the lunchtime concert, centred upon a group of percussionists, was, as he said, ‘stunning’.
When he wrote to me the next day, he asked the most important of all questions: why can’t every town have a school like this?
Well, once upon a time, lots of towns and cities did have schools like this and they were called Direct Grant Schools. In 1975 there were 174 of them and they were spread across the land, although concentrated in the Midlands and the North.
These schools were the great grammar schools, often founded in the 16th century as education began to matter as an engine for social mobility.
So, they were Manchester Grammar School and Bradford Grammar School and Royal Grammar School, Newcastle and Bristol Grammar School and Royal Grammar School, Worcester and King Henry VIII Coventry and Bablake School and Wolverhampton Grammar School and King Edward’s School and King Edward VI High School for Girls and on and on.
The words ‘Direct Grant’ meant that these schools received from the state direct funding for educating boys and girls.
The majority of such schools had at least 50 per cent of their pupils on free places, the most fortunate like King Edward’s had 80 per cent of the pupils there for free.
And such schools were exceptionally successful in providing the most wondrous opportunity.
I know: I was one of the lucky pupils and so was my brother.
If there had been league tables in 1975 Direct Grant Schools would have dominated them as the independent schools of the south do today.
At King Edward’s in the 1970s, there were years when half of the children got places at Oxford and Cambridge – and then went on to free education with a grant. Those were the days.
In 1975 lots of people knew the value of such an education and such a chance: after all, the Chancellor of the time, Denis Healey was a Bradford Grammar School boy.
However, in March 1975 political dogma and the need to pacify the Labour left put a stop to the Direct Grant system: they were all meant to become comprehensive schools. In fact, they didn’t.
The majority of such schools and the very best of them chose, with a heavy heart, to leave the state sector and to become independent schools, fee-paying independent schools. Now, only the affluent could send their children there.
So, the drive towards equality of opportunity managed to reduce the opportunities available.
This was one of the great acts of educational self-destruction.
I don’t suppose that any government is going to admit to this ancient error and go back to those days and the chances that such an education gave.
However, perhaps something might be done.
Obviously, there is a gap between the money it costs to educate a child in a state school and the cost of an independent school fee.
However, if the state did pass over its funding for some pupils to independent schools, I know that the schools themselves, and particularly their grateful former pupils, would match that funding and make it possible for bright boys and girls to have the chance which Mr Austin seeks.
It would only take the end of dogma and a bit of common sense.
- John Claughton is chief master of King Edward’s School, Birmingham