Political debate chat
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Why won’t any political party dare champion grammar schools? The demise of the grammar schools was a political debate chat for this country, robbing the brightest working-class children of the chance to be educated to the highest level.

Read this: Why won’t any political party dare champion grammar schools? This was surely one of the most original excuses ever heard for non-attendance at a gathering. Ten years ago, I went to a reunion of staff and former pupils from my old grammar school, Harrow County for Boys, which was based in north-west London. The happy centrepiece of the evening was a tribute to a much-loved master, Harry Rees, who was finally retiring after years of devoted service, not only in teaching history but also in staging school drama productions. The farewell took the format of the popular TV show This Is Your Life, though, in reference to Harry’s work in drama, it was entitled This Is Your Backstage Life. Now Harry there is one boy you might remember from about 30 years ago, who was a dab hand at painting scenery for your sets. Because he is in Sweden — receiving the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

The explanation was absolutely true. The boy in question was none other than the brilliant scientist Sir Paul Nurse, now President of the Royal Society and in 2001 the recipient of the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on cell structures. And it was right that Sir Paul should be mentioned, even in his absence, at our reunion, because his rise to the pinnacle of scientific achievement reflected the high academic standards of the school. I was reminded of my affection for the place when I recently participated in a new documentary series on the history of grammar schools, the first episode of which will be shown on BBC Four tonight.

Like so many other grammar schools that flourished in Britain before they were abolished through a mix of ideology and political folly, Harrow County was a fiercely competitive institution, where all boys were taught to strive for excellence. It was precisely because of this demanding regime that results were so good. Funded by the state, the school gave bright boys a magnificent start in life, no matter how disadvantaged their backgrounds. As the BBC programme shows, the grammars like Harrow County were true engines of social mobility for working-class pupils fortunate enough to win places at them. Indeed, Sir Paul Nurse himself is a classic example of this pattern.

He was brought up in Wembley by his grandparents — his grandfather was a mechanic in the local Heinz factory and his grandmother was a cleaner. Yet from these modest beginnings he became one of the world’s greatest geneticists, thanks partly to the influence of Harrow County. I, too, feel I owe a huge debt to the school, for I am also from an unconventional background. My own father was a refugee from the Spanish civil war in the 1930s, later going on to become a BBC radio producer after World War II. Having passed my 11-plus exam, the selective test that decided whether pupils would go to the elite grammars or the less academically orientated secondary moderns, I was lucky enough to study there between 1964 and 1971, before winning a place at Cambridge University.