Mon 18 October 2021

After John Bercow’s denouncement of grammar schools, Maheen Behrana questions whether the former House of Commons Speaker truly believes in comprehensive education

The former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has had a change of heart on grammar schools.

Writing for the Guardian, he wrote that, as his general political outlook has shifted to the left, he has recognised that grammar schools – state secondaries which select pupils on the basis of ability – create a stratification between children from lower socio-economic backgrounds and those in more privileged positions.

The shift in the former Conservative MP’s view on this point is to be welcomed, particularly in an era of ideological turf wars. As someone who attended a private school, I have long felt that selective education of any sort benefits a handful of already privileged children at the expense of the vast majority. Grammar schools are no exception to this rule.

With house prices in grammar school catchment areas often at a premium of £100,000, we cannot pretend that they solely select on ‘merit’. And, as Bercow explains, it is not really possible for us to separate 10-year-olds on the basis of merit, when children from lower socio-economic backgrounds may under-perform in comparison to their peers because of several interrelated social factors.

It is also clear that children from privileged backgrounds are more likely to perform well in grammar school selection tests. Indeed, they may already have been privately educated or their parents may have been able to pay for private tuition.

However, for me, Bercow’s argument fell down when he used his children’s school as an example of what good comprehensive education should look like: west London’s Holland Park School.

Academy Schools

In no way can Holland Park School be deemed as a typical comprehensive school.

More than once, it has been dubbed the ‘socialist Eton’, with its headteacher Colin Hall receiving a salary of £275,000 a year. The school has also been accused of profligate spending, with around £3,000 spent on Jo Malone candles over the course of three years.

While Bercow informs us that 17.7% of Holland Park School’s children are eligible to receive free school meals, this is nevertheless below the London average of 19%, and doesn’t change the fact that thr school has often been the institution of choice for the ‘left-wing aristocracy’ including the Labour MP Tony Benn, and the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee.

For a sample of the Holland Park experience, it is worth reading this article from a former student, reminiscing about the numerous cleaners that could be seen at all times in the school’s £80 million buildings, and the fact that Itsu – not exactly the world’s cheapest food chain – was a lunchtime favourite.

The issue with Bercow using Holland Park as an example of a high-flying comprehensive is that, not only is it a very unusual state school, but it is also an academy. A brainchild of Tony Blair’s Labour Government, academy schools are state-funded but independent of local authority control. They are often run by trusts and, if a school within an academy trust is deemed to be failing, another trust can usually take it over.

Proponents of academy schools – often found on the right of the political spectrum – consider this to be a way to ensure that no school stagnates or constantly under-performs. But critics see it as the first step towards the marketisation of education. After all, the expenditure of Holland Park School is only possible because it is out of local authority control.

Bercow claims that the correct philosophy for education is to have a “country-wide policy, nationally promoted and applied”. He implies that he would like to see education policy and decisions heavily in the control of central government. Academy schools represent the opposite of this ideal. They decentralise the responsibility for the provision of education and even take such responsibility – and control – away from local authorities.

If Bercow wanted to put forward an argument for a truly comprehensive education system, he should not have been looking to Holland Park School as his example. A truly comprehensive education system is one in which schools are services, not enterprises. While academy trusts are not technically allowed to operate for profit, there is growing evidence that trusts are getting around this by outsourcing to aligned commercial ventures.

Holland Park is not representative of the state school system. Its results may be outstanding, but its catchment and management make it an outlier. The question remains: is John Bercow advocating for centralised, state control of schools? Because if he isn’t, then he can’t claim to really be in favour of comprehensive education at all.


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