by our special freelance correspondent Ziro Owers
News that Prime Minister Theresa May has given the green light to grammar schools was greeted with cheers of gratitude and a fair few tears of nostalgia at the Bafflesby Institute for Generating Upmarket Policy (BIGUP) earlier today. This conservative think-tank is the brainchild of Doctor Ry Twyng who welcomed me personally in the foyer of BIGUP with an iron handshake, his eyes glinting behind rose-tinted spectacles. I imagined he would whisk me up to his plush office but, washing his hand with a wet-wipe, he indicated a couple of plastic chairs next to a wilting plant. The interview clearly wasn’t going to be a long one so I plunged in at the deep end.
Was 11 years old too early to separate children by ability? ‘Well,’ Doctor Ry began, leaning forward, ‘in some ways it’s too late. As we speak, we’re working on techniques to predict personal profitability potential in five-year-olds. It’s only a matter of time before we can reach into the womb … as it were.’
Profitability potential? ‘Estimated economic value. Future earning capability. It pays to think ahead, you see.’
I pointed up at the motto under the BIGUP logo, which read Backwards Is The New Forwards. The Doctor blinked. ‘Ah, yes, well … you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! And one thing never changes, taxpayers want big bangs for their bucks. A return on their investments, you might say. We need to identify the growth points and channel expenditure accordingly.’
Did that mean spending money to help disadvantaged children catch up? He sighed, as if dealing with a slow learner. ‘You don’t turn sheep into goats by giving them climbing lessons. Think of grammar schools as hothouses for jungle creepers. A battle to reach the light!’
Spittle flecked his lips. I asked if he saw human beings as a collection of different species. He thought for a moment. ‘Well, I’d like the school system to resemble a well-run zoo. It’s certainly cost-effective to keep meat-eaters and vegetarians apart.’
Did cost-effective mean cheaper, I wondered? ‘Some people know the value of everything and the price of nothing,’ he said, with a mysterious little laugh.
So there’d be no truck with antelopes auditioning for the big cat enclosure? He rolled his eyes, back to that lesson with the slow learner. ‘It’s all about giving children the opportunity to succeed. The grammar school is a beacon of high attainment.’
Did that mean a light on a far hill only glimpsed by most people from the valley below? His snort of impatience implied that I was struggling with his analogies, which was hardly fair. I was only trying to help him with them.
Time, it seemed, for a direct ball upfield!
What I found hard to understand, I said, was the claim that grammar schools improved choice when the vast majority of children failed to get into them. ‘Ah, well, the losers have the choice of paying for a private education. We still live in a free country. Or are you suggesting we abolish the human right to buy our children an educational advantage?’
For some reason I imagined myself as a French peasant telling Marie Antoinette I had no bread and being told to go and eat cake. I looked at my hands. The Doctor must have seen his advantage. ‘And don’t forget,’ he added, ‘that everyone has the right to purchase extra tuition in the run-up to grammar school selection tests.’
He’d pushed his case too far. I told him I thought the PM had ruled out a return to entrance exams. ‘Ah, yes, well … selection can also be made by interview.’
Did this mean weeding out social undesirables? ‘Now you’re trying to put words in my mouth, my young friend! Think of the grammar school as a lifeline to bright children from the wrong side of the tracks. The poor are always with us, alas, but some of them are surprisingly clever.’
He gave me an accusing look, as if I should doubt his word. I pressed on. What of the existing grammar schools, in which a mere 3% of pupils were poor enough to need free school meals as against the national average of 18%? Were these schools playing a part in their country’s heroic struggle for equality and community?
‘You’ve forgotten liberty,’ he said in a dry voice.
I pressed on some more. Why, I wondered, did London’s comprehensive school system outperform the selective system of neighbouring Kent for children from every social background?
The Doctor opened his mouth as if to speak but stood up instead. I followed suit and he gave my chair a quick once-over with the wet-wipe before flashing me a smile like a porcelain wall.
‘Do you have a coat, young man? There’s a cold wind blowing outside.’