As I now spend most of my time in the US, and see Britain only intermittently, I can monitor changes in British society with judgment unstaled by custom. It is like being a chronic Rip van Winkle, repeatedly reawakening to an increasingly uncongenial world. Every time I return, fewer people understand my old-fashioned English; my clothes — always out of fashion — are a little more out of place; public utilities approach ever more closely pre-privatisation levels of inefficiency; manners seem more ill-disciplined, humour cruder, police more trigger-happy, psychobabble more prevalent, passions more visible, interlocutors more opaque.
It has made me more interested in longer-term changes that have made Britain unrecognisable to my parents’ generation. My father reported for Spanish readers on a land of minds rolled as tightly as the umbrellas. He returned in 1969 to visit me when I was an undergraduate. He affected disgust at my slovenly contemporaries, but the familiarly nasty smell from the college kitchen convinced him that some things had not changed. Now he would not even have that much comfort.
One of the big changes, which he would have deplored, has been the retreat of grammar schools. They were an amusingly British anomaly, and effective agents of embourgeoisement in the class war. But they nurtured talent for service and achievement in public life, education and the arts. When they withered, elite education became hard of access, except for the rich, the scholarship-gleaners and winners in the postcode lottery.
Now I return to find debate about grammar schools surprisingly revived, and, in one respect, critically ill-informed: analogies with higher education play no part. The analogy I find helpful is with the US, where they have no grammar schools but they do have what might be called grammar universities. Most states have an elite tier of publicly supported higher education institutions that charge very low fees but are highly selective in admissions. A citizen of California, if suitably qualified, can go to Berkeley or UCLA and get a Harvard-level experience at a seventh of the cost. If you don’t make it to one of the University of California campuses, you join your intellectual peers at one of the California State institutions. If you can’t make it there, community colleges exist as a safety net, where everyone is entitled to a place. From there, late developers can transfer upwards through the system.
Any selective system without bridges between the tiers is wicked. And obviously, there is a huge difference between selection at 17 and selection at 11. But in some ways it makes better sense at the earlier age. University classrooms are remarkably collaborative learning environments, where it is rare to find students who are impatient of different levels of ability. School-age adolescents, on the other hand, are often unappreciative, disruptive and intolerant. Weak students are less likely to learn from more talented peers in their early to mid-teens. Able pupils, at that stage of their education, are more likely to be held back by the slowcoaches, intimidated by the yobs or angered by the class clowns. Streaming — which is the usual way round these problems in comprehensive schools — is at least as divisive, and as inclined to breed resentment, as any other system that pens sheep and goats apart. Children relegated to the nether reaches have the opportunity to form ghettoes and develop a sort of camaraderie de la boue that stops them from trying to succeed. It is easier for late developers to escape into a new environment if their former classmates are not on hand to reproach them.
No one in the English-speaking world seriously opposes selection for university entrance. Yet logically, if selection deprives people of opportunity at one moment, it must do so at the next. In the old days, when university was understood to be an elite experience, and many eminent and remunerative walks of life were open to those without it, the selectivity of universities was tolerable. Now we live in a world where job ads specify, “Bachelors degree and abil­ity to carry heavy weights required” and access to university is coming to be seen, like access to school, as a universal right. When we get to US levels of uptake in higher education, with 50 per cent of the population attending universities, only two options will make sense if we want to be consistent: either we must agree that selective schools are acceptable, or we have to scrap selective universities. US experience can help us choose.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.