On the 29th of October the York Union, before a genuinely overflowing SLB/118, hosted writer and columnist Peter Hitchens and his views on the current state of British comprehensive education as well as his proposed solution: bringing back selective grammar schools. Putting aside his quasi-reactionary social theories, economic libertarianism and Russophile international policies, he delivered a genuine, impassioned attack on an educational system that is undoubtedly failing vast swathes of the British population. His speech, sometimes consisting of convincing argumentation, sometimes consisting of pure reactionary polemic, withstood the resisting questions thrown at it, but undoubtedly could have stood with a powerful opponent on the stage.
Hitchens, the gaunt conservative alter-ego of his monumental brother Christopher, and long-suffering columnist of the Mail on Sunday, as well as author of multiple books raging at the drug-addled, hedonistic and godless society created by Blairites and comprehensive education, appeared once again at the University of York this Monday. It is this rage which was channeled in a comprehensive assault on the modern education system, arguing from the perspective that selection by academic capacity at eleven for the quality of school you attend is more egalitarian, utilitarian and preferable than the current process of selection of by catchment area and thus wealth. Around this central polemic axis Hitchens spoke mystically about the glories of the grammar/secondary modern system that were slowly abolished after 1965, in which 66% of students attending grammar schools came from working-class backgrounds. In his opinion, the whole population then achieved a better education. It is this statistic that to him undermines the entire comprehensive experiment, as so-called ‘good’ comprehensive schools nowadays, have far lower proportions of working-class students in them by virtue of catchment areas.
The current “shameful” system which inculcates a “hatred of education”, in his opinion, hurts all as those students with academic potential who are, by virtue of where they live, prevented from escaping their conditions and joining the hallowed ranks of the middling classes. However, he carefully reinforced the harsh line, by bringing up the educational systems of Northern Europe, where selection at twelve has prevented the significant slippage in educational standards which have occurred in Britain. Of course, he could not make this attack without dragging in the entire left-wing ‘egalitarian’ framework that has supposedly driven the comprehensive experiment, with repeated non-applicable references to the Soviet Union, a straw man who only revealed the deep conservatism inherent in his entire speech. In the end, he appealed for our generation to slaughter our golden calves and reverse the most abhorrent decision in British politics “since the dissolution of the monasteries”. Whether anyone was truly convinced by this rhetoric, he certainly left some important questions for the metropolitan educational elite he so derides.
After his half hour oration, he bravely faced up to an hour of questioning from the audience which was, person-for-person against the central thrust of his speech. This one-sided questioning was only magnified by the rather humorous interjection of one young man who loudly stood up during one answer, shouted something about his frustration at how well Hitchens was doing and proceeded to be booed out of the room. Beyond this, Hitchens response to questions were fairly rambling, did not directly deal with the matters in the question and saw him cycling back to the notion that his solutions weren’t “perfect”. He repeatedly failed to address the impact on those students that would not be attending his lifeboat grammars or the notion of middle-class advantages in getting into these schools, such as being able to afford tutors. Critically, he failed to address any of the variables besides non-selection that are currently hampering comprehensive education, such as systematic underfunding or the gerrymandering of catchment areas to exclusively wealthy areas. However, in the end his exclusionary final solution emerged, involving: lowering the school-leaving age, getting students into work much earlier and making tests harder and harder over time.
Perhaps due to the inherent format of the question and answer session, Hitchens was able to deflect these piercing questions, with no one effectively able to justify the overwhelming British educational consensus against his turn-back-the-clock attitudes. It would thus, be far preferable to put a representative of this consensus across the table from him, a necessary perspective required in this debate. Either way, Hitchens posed some piercing questions to the comprehensive experiment, and did so from a remarkably tolerant position of wanting to advance working-class pupils. However, the myriad ideological cobwebs that accompany his wider political opinions, undoubtedly marred the clarity of his arguments and his defence of imperfection left much to be wanted. If these attitudes will ever gain any traction with the wider public remains to be seem, but he certainly left food for thought at the University on a bitter Yorkshire night.
Disclaimer: Reports from The York Union published by The Yorker are the author’s own opinion. All opinions expressed derive from the author in question.