British prime minister Theresa May has set off a royal dust-up with her proposal to loosen England’s half-century-old shackles on grammar schools, the British term for selective-admission public secondary schools focused on preparation for university.
Back in the 1940’s and 50’s, England had a “tripartite” system of secondary education (not including old-line, private-pay prep schools like Eton and Harrow). Besides grammar schools for high achievers seeking an academic education, there were technical schools and “secondary modern schools.” Children were pointed down a particular track after taking the “eleven-plus” exam (around fifth grade).
This was typical of the era in many places and characteristic of class-riddled England. And of course it tended to perpetuate class divisions, as better-off kids with better-educated parents were much more apt to make it into (and want to enter) the grammar schools.
This arrangement began to change under Labour governments in the mid-sixties, as they pushed communities to create “comprehensive” secondary schools—akin to what James B. Conant, using the same adjective, urged for the United States, and what Ted Sizer would eventually dub the “shopping mall high school.”
Many policy chapters followed as Tory and Labour governments took turns changing priorities and ground rules but, by...