Jonathan Porter: Grammars and the grain of truth

Jonathan Porter is the Head of Humanities at Michaela Community School. He tweets at @JHC_Porter

Jonathan Porter

One of the many things that I learn as I get older is that there is often a grain of truth in any strongly held opinion, even if, ultimately, I think it’s the wrong one. It’s one of the things that afflicts debates in schools about behaviour and pedagogy. Why do some teachers instinctively balk at words like ‘punishment’, ‘discipline’ and ‘authority’? Well, in part, because there have been genuine abuses in the past. Jonathan Rose in his fascinating book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes estimates that around a third of pupils in Britain, across social classes, considered corporal punishment to have been ‘too severe’ at some point in their own schooling. My own father bitterly resents being beaten for writing left-handed as a child.

The same is true of pedagogy. Why do so many teachers balk at using textbooks? It’s because there is definitely a bad way of teaching with a textbook. Many elderly people I’ve spoken to about their education regale stories of tweed-clad masters reading the Racing Post at the front of the class with ‘pages 30 and 31’ provided on the blackboard by way of instruction.

Similarly, why do so many people still want a grammar school for their child?

Here I put my cards on the table: I’m not a fan. This may surprise you: not only because I’m a card-carrying member of the Conservative Party, but also because I was selectively (and privately) educated myself. This leaves me open to the accusations of hypocrisy that I normally like to train on my private tutoring, foreign-property owning pals in Peckham. It’s not my intention here to go into why I’m against them: it has been more eloquently put and more thoroughly researched by minds much greater than my own here and here.

But I think we need to recognise where supporters of grammar schools are coming from, not least because I think it’s the only way of providing a satisfactory solution.


Supporters of grammar schools desire a traditional liberal education for their children. They believe that the teacher’s role is to pass knowledge from one generation to another. Educationally, then, they are often conservative with a small ‘c’, even if their intention is, actually, to foment a culture of radicalism. I have one friend, a grammar school boy, who talks fondly of a history teacher who would get his pupils to sing the Red Flag whenever the Headmaster walked past his window. This association with a traditional curriculum and political subversion used to be a view commonly found on the Left. Rigid class hierarchy depends on the presumption that the lower classes lack the mental or intellectual ability necessary to play a governing role in society. Grammar schools, where they do genuinely draw from the working classes, discredit that assumption and, in doing so, demolish the justification for privilege. Those Tories who still fight for grammar schools feel strongly that grammar schools were the way into a world of knowledge that they would not otherwise have known. They don’t believe that sufficient numbers of comprehensive schools cherish that ideal.

And they’re right. Sufficient numbers of comprehensive schools do not cherish that ideal. What we have is a system where, in many comprehensive schools, the curriculum is made ‘relevant’ or ‘engaging’ to pupils, either because behaviour in the school is so poor that this is the only way to grab the pupils’ attention, or because a vapid relativistic culture has crushed 100s of years of belief that there is such a thing, however much it may adapt over time, as ‘The Canon’.


The other suspicion they have is that comprehensives do not do enough to stretch their brightest pupils. Here, again, they are right.

Perverse incentives – now thankfully gone – meant that for years and years departments directed their best teachers and the bulk of their resources to pupils at the C/D borderline. They did so at the expense of pupils at the A/A* borderline and who, and I can’t say this strongly enough, were just as deserving. Not more deserving. Not less deserving. But just as deserving. All the while the pupils at the grammar schools were using those resources to get one over on the thick but wealthy kids at the private school next door.

Schools would organise trips to Thorpe Park – as a ‘Reward Event’ – for pupils at the end of the year. But not Cambridge. And why not? Partly, because in many comprehensives, teachers who went to the best universities have been driven out by a) poor behaviour b) a ‘relevant’ curriculum or c) soul-destroying teaching targets from managers who no longer teach (or a combination of all three). Partly, it is because there are still, unfortunately, some teachers in comprehensives who believe that certain universities are not for certain kids. By that they mean that if you’re white and working-class, or black with a single mum, then an ancient university just isn’t for you. This is what Nick Timothy – now Theresa May’s joint chief-of-staff – would have been told if he’d gone to many comprehensives in central Birmingham, rather than a grammar, in the early 90s. As he says himself, “I joined the Conservatives because they did not just talk the language of social mobility: they made it happen, and they made it happen for me”.

The challenge

The challenge for comprehensive education is to recognise this as a legitimate criticism of a model that has an astonishing and laudable ambition. Too many schools have promoted ‘relevant’ and parochial curricula at the expense of a delightfully irrelevant and transformative one. And too many schools have tended to our weakest pupils at the expense of our strongest. We have an obligation to the get the best out of every child, and that means our brightest, too.

And we, the Conservatives, should want better. If the grammar school education is as good as we say it is, let us provide it free for everyone. And let’s offer to the many an education that is too often the preserve of the few.



One thought on “Jonathan Porter: Grammars and the grain of truth

  1. Interesting piece, and I completely agree with your father. I also think that the problem is that comps have failed their most able pupils, often as a matter of policy – the head of one of them told the Westminster Forum a couple of years ago that he did not want pupils to think that all that mattered was their attainment, and it was a very short step from that to say that attainment didn’t matter. His languages results were atrocious, and he clearly didn’t care. So, while I don’t think grammar schools are ideal, because of the implied neglect of the others, I can see how ministers may think that they are the only way of getting some kind of intellectual opportunity into areas that are dominated by ignorance.

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