Comment: It is the economy, not schools, we need to fix

Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, argues that bringing back grammar schools won't lead to the decent job opportunities there once were.

Comment: It is the economy, not schools, we need to fix

by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, 12.9.16, in The Daily Telegraph

Mention schooldays and suddenly our minds are flooded with memories. It isn't just the autumnal back-to-school weather.

The prime minister – a grammar school girl who went on to lead a country – has opened the flood gates to a debate which touches on aspiration, class, division and hope.

Everyone has their own story. I started in a grammar school which turned into a Comprehensive School. Bridgend Grammar Technical School ended up as Brynteg Comprehensive when it was merged with Heol Gam, the nearest secondary modern school.

As I entered school for the first time, I wore the classic blazer bought in the one shop in town allowed to sell it, emblazoned with the motto from the Mabinogion in Welsh, "a fo ben bid bont" - "Let he would be the leader be the bridge".

I knew I was made for life; everyone had told me that in each pitying remark that I heard about those who "failed" the eleven plus examination. "Poor so-and-so, and his dad is so clever, they must feel terrible". (Add a good Welsh accent to get the real effect.)

The secondary modern boys wore plain jumpers and would try to throw stones at you, but you knew you were the superior race. The grammar school I entered was a tough rugby playing place too. And I mean tough, so we were not afraid of the secondary modern roughs. The BBC have sent Stephen Evans to North Korea, so they most likely know he went to my school. Some of my schoolmates were later imprisoned for running an extortion racket that began at school!

But the really important story about my school and others like them was not blazers, test results or even the teaching. It was the jobs which were on offer when you left.

Bringing back the grammar schools will not change the opportunities for life that we need for our children if, when the exams are over, there is nowhere for them to put that education to work.

Professor sir keith burnett

I saw it when I looked at a copy of the school magazine from the sixties. That magazine is redolent with the things we would like for our children today. There are adverts for jobs in banks, building societies and local industry, because most boys went straight from school to professional careers.

A few went to university to become doctors or teachers, and some even to become scientists like me. But we were really a rare breed.

Why go to university when you could have your house and pension sorted by the time you were twenty? The golf club and the Rotary beckoned you as you smoothly traveled in you new Austin Tourer from your detached house in a pleasant village in the vale of Glamorgan. Cowbridge was the posh place you aspired to - people who lived there worked in Cardiff.

The careers fair in the school hall had jobs with such prospects on offer at the National Coal Board and in steel. There were lots of jobs for grammar school boys – and we were all boys – and no one worried about the future.

One of the greatest grammar schools in South Wales was the school my father and his brother went to Porth County. This superb school selected from the finest minds in the Rhondda, despite the lack of affluence amongst many of its pupils. It sent off those children to careers around the UK and the world.

You might well have had a Porth County boy as a teacher or even as a headmaster – well-educated Welsh school boys went on to many such roles. Corpus Christi, Oxford had quite a few students from the Rhondda because of that school, and even NASA drew on talent from Porth County.

So the education I experienced gave a phenomenal boost for the careers of a few and a good boost to many because of the range of middle class jobs on offer. And even if you left school at 14, as my dad and others like him did, there were still lots of blue-collar decently-paid jobs to go to.

And this fact is what nobody is mentioning now. The people who benefitted most from the old educational system are those who got jobs that either no longer exist now or which today you need a degree to have any chance of getting into.

And that is the real point isn't it? Bringing back the grammar schools will not change the opportunities for life that we need for our children if, when the exams are over, there is nowhere for them to put that education to work.

We could bring back every damn aspect of my grammar school, and some of it would be heaven to someone like me. I particularly miss the pink custard with the chocolate pudding and the cigarette on the cross country "run". But we can't bring back a country full of opportunities for working people without fixing the real problems of our economy, and that will need more than new faith schools and university-sponsored academies.

For too long the UK has separated education into a world of class and possibility. We need more then The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie. We don't just want a supply-side education which feeds poor kids into degrees. We need demand for what the best whole system of education can provide.

This means thinking way beyond school and university to the economy as a whole. Who will be the employers in a globalised world which increasingly relies on automation of blue and white collar roles. Who will create the wealth and pay the taxes, and how?

Theresa May has also said Britain needs an industrial strategy and to be a world leader in trade. This can't be a separate issue. If we are to stand a chance in a post-Brexit world we need an education system which is part of this, with a real future for clever kids from any background to do good jobs with prospects.

What does that mean for the future? Much as the British voter may be nostalgic for Malory Towers and dread Grange Hill, we need to look beyond the promises of boaters, blazers and extra Latin prep which will send only a tiny handful of our children to Oxbridge to read PPE.

Instead we need to make sure there is the globally competitive, progressive economy which can offer real hope to the many. We need more of the kind of degree apprentice routes my own university offers to industry-sponsored young people who may not pass an 11+ but who with the right training and support can and will become the engineers and industry CEOs of the future. If we think of this group as also-rans, we are headed for disaster.

But that won't happen without a revolution in our entire approach to education and industry. We need cutting-edge industrial research and a national strategy to support our best companies as they take on the world.

Young people who pursue a vocational route must also know that they are The Chosen, that they have no limits on their potential and that their future is assured. That will take a lot more than rebranding comprehensives and introductions greater selection. It will mean making a country which actually offers the economic underpinning for a prosperous future for all our children.