The question of grammar schools had been an hot topic in British politics for many decades. Should they be reinstated (or not) like they were decades ago as a meritocratic tool to achieve social mobility?
Let me talk to you about a system that I know quite well, which is the education system in Quebec (a Canadian province). It’s far from a perfect education system and many things done in British education system (such as free schools for example) should be put forward as ideas in the Quebec’s education system.
Like in the UK, many reforms in education in Quebec done in the last few years were atrocious both for students and teachers. High school dropout rates are also much too high in Quebec and this will bring big problems in the future. However, one interesting thing is that they are a lot of quasi-grammar schools which are owned by organisations or religious orders. They are in a way semi-private schools, they usually have fees but they are usually affordable even for people of modest means. These schools had also become a shield against a sometimes unpredictable public education system, while forcing public high schools to reform and try to attract students in new ways.
But why these schools are existing as the exact opposite of the situation in the rest of North America? It was an accident of history. Before the 1960’s, education in Quebec was usually a responsibility of the Church and of religious orders as Quebec (and French Canada in general) was a very Catholic society akin to the Irish Republic. In the 1960’s, reforms were done both by the Liberal and Union Nationale governments during the Quiet Revolution, and a formal ministry of education was formed and comprehensive schools (known as polyvalentes in Canadian French) were created. But the problem is that these comprehensive schools were not quite ready to accommodate all the students after the massive baby boom after the Second World War, so the Quebec government (education is a provincial responsibility in Canada) have decided to fund partly fee-paying schools if they accept to comply to a few standards as a temporary measure. Of course, parents who send their children in these schools will also have to pay the education tax (which is paid with Quebec’s version of the council tax called the municipal tax) to fund the public system of education on top of school fees (which remains quite modest).
You may think why these schools had never been removed their funding by the state? It’s very difficult to know exactly why, but one interesting theory is these schools were able to form a meritocracy. Decades passing by, this had made removing the subsidies to fee-paying school no less than a political suicide. Some people who come from modest backgrounds were able to achieve social mobility because that went to good high schools which choose their students with entrance exams on Year 6 (like British grammar schools) while keeping costs affordable. Even in the political arena, when you have a minister of (public) education who have sent her children to a fee-paying school, it’s difficult to argue against the quality of these schools. Some are no better than average public comprehensive schools, but other had forced comprehensive schools to find new ways to innovate, by offering for example, the International Baccalaureate or things which are similar to a fee-paying school.
In conclusion, even in Quebec. which have a state which is quite social democrat, corporatist and statist considering North American standards in many areas, the high school education system is somewhat less statist and top-down than in many other places in North America. Even more so than in many places in the United States which you go to your high school based on where do you live, which sometimes bring horrible results as a vicious circle based on a postcode lottery.