Prime Minister of the UK, Theresa May. Photo: Flickr / U.S. Embassy London Prime Minister of the UK, Theresa May. Photo: Flickr / U.S. Embassy London

As Theresa May tries to take us back in time, Sean Ledwith and Adam Tomes take a look at the grammar school debate

Theresa May has somehow managed to come up with an educational policy that is too reactionary even for the former Tory Education Secretary, a prominent apologist for free schools and the boss of Ofsted! Nicky Morgan, Toby Young and Michael Wilshaw have all denounced May’s project to restore grammar schools to the heart of the English education system. Normally, such an unwholesome trio would be queuing up to support anything that damages public sector provision. It is a remarkable indicator that even these unsavoury characters are not prepared to back such an ill-conceived plan. Nothing better encapsulates the mean and reactionary nature of Theresa May’s new Tory regime than this pledge to re-animate the educational corpse of grammar schools. Even her predecessor as Tory Prime Minister stated the idea was pointless a few years ago.

The phrase itself conjures a right-wing mirage of a postwar era when the offspring of the proles knew their place while those of the elite were safely ensconced in their Latin-speaking, cape-wearing ivory towers. Generations of Conservatives have dreamed of rolling back the progressive educational revolution of the 1960s that liberated working-class children from the low-expectations elitism of the tripartite system. The comprehensive system has been steadily eroded since the Thatcher years thanks to the incremental introduction of academies, free schools, city technology colleges and other assorted brands of private sector Trojan horses. Dusting-off the bankrupt model of grammar schools is just the most blatant attempt to turn the educational clock back to the age of black and white television. Predictably, like all Tory assaults on the public sector provision, this one is coated in the hollow rhetoric of reform:

“This is about being unapologetic for our belief in social mobility and making this country a true meritocracy – a country that works for everyone”.

The dark side of grammars

May is spinning the same lie that apologists for the archetypal grammar schools peddled in the postwar era and have continued to push even when such schools were reduced to the margins of the education system following the comprehensive revolution. Countless beneficiaries of grammar schools have been wheeled out to argue they have been engines of social mobility and have opened doors for many working class children. The reality is this type of institution was one of the most notorious symbols of a class-bound and stratified society which inhibited and suppressed aspiration and ambition for the majority of working class children for decades. The dark side of the grammar school myth was that for every child of a disadvantaged background who did manage to scramble over the parapet into these bastions of exclusivity, hundreds more were left out in the educational cold of secondary moderns, stereotyped as no-hopers in the style of the Beano comic characters, the Bash Street Kids. Nothing could be more calamitous for English education than to allow this insidious scheme to succeed.

The arguments and evidence against grammar schools are well known and well-rehearsed. The policy of selection has been skewered by “almost every serious policy thinker from across the political spectrum” and attacked by figures that are hardly regarded as sympathetic to radical socialist views including Anthony Crosland and Margaret Thatcher as Education Secretaries, and Alan Milburn, the arch-Blairite and Social Mobility Tsar. Yet the Prime Minister continues to flog this dead horse as “bringing back selection at 11 consistently makes it into the top four as far as voters are concerned”.

Noxious nostalgia

Let’s start with the evidence. For Theresa May, and supporters of this view, grammar schools and selection are part of a nostalgic, sepia tinted view of the world based on the 1950s and 1960s. Now, whilst it is true that grammars did create some top to bottom social mobility, this was more the exception than the rule. The 1959 Crowther report found that in grammar schools, only 7% of students came from a “semi-skilled manual” background with only 3% from an unskilled manual background. At the same time, the Gurney-Dixon report from 1954 showed that two thirds of students from this background did not achieve two A levels.

Whilst the historical evidence is negative, the modern evidence is damning. Using Department of Education date, 29% of children in the UK school system are in the category of disadvantaged pupils (have been eligible for free school meals within the last six years” whilst this is less than 3% for the remaining 163 grammars still open today in England. The Sutton Trust report also finds disturbingly that 66% of children who achieve level 5 in both English and Maths at Key Stage 2 who are not eligible for free school meals go to a grammar school compared with 40% of similarly high achieving children who are eligible for free school meals. This is largely down to more affluent, middle class families paying for coaching to help pass the exam and currently nearly 13% of grammar school entrants come from the fee paying sector.

At the same time, the evidence reveals there is no aggregate improvement in results within area that still operate selectivity. The key difference is that those in the grammar school do better and those not in grammar schools do worse. And for the few from disadvantaged backgrounds, who do make it into the grammar school system, the difference in achievement for this group is about one-eighth of a GCSE grade.

The bottom line is that there is no case for grammar schools or selectivity at 11. May recognises this and suggests further entrance into grammars at 14 and 16 as well as placing rules that ensure that the grammars take more children from disadvantaged backgrounds but as Toby Young, very much a sharp middle classed parent points out “there are various things it could do to encourage them to admit more children from low-income families, but sharp-elbowed parents will always find a way to game the system”.

Educational segregation

The Tories are saying that this not “binary divide” as in the 1950s between grammars and secondary moderns but it is part of the wider introduction of choice into education alongside Academies and Free Schools in the belief that choice and the market can drive up educational standards and raise social mobility. The Tory MP, Graham Brady makes this case that somehow “progress in state schools in recent years has come from a readiness to promote more diverse provision” and points to the case of Trafford. Yet the evidence from Trafford is that it has very low social mobility and is the area with the greatest educational social segregation in England. At the same time the OECD has published a study that shows “that not only are selective systems more socially segregated, they are also less effective than inclusive ones”. It is also worth noting that this area has a high level of fee paying schools. The grammar debate is often seen as binary, but the reality it is a tripartite system, and if we wish to tackle to social mobility through education, we need to have an honest debate that also looks at the role of private education in creating inequality in our society.

The Finnish model

The debate about education is constantly driven into policy debates about grammars, academies and free schools and each one of these ideas is worth tackling for their many failures. The bigger picture has to be that education is not just about social mobility, or about employment but it is a right and good of itself. Education should be a place that inspires people to want to learn, to question and to investigate for the rest of their lives. It should allow everyone to flourish at whatever age and in whatever direction. This is not a utopia and perhaps we should cast our eyes to Finland. Here 99.2% of all schooling is state funded, there are no league tables, and no inspections of teachers and pupils are not set or streamed by ability. Yet as Diane Reay explains “In four international surveys, all since 2000, Finnish comprehensive school students have scored above students in all the other participating countries in science and problem-solving skills, and came either first or second in reading and mathematics.” Food for thought for Graham Brady MP, who writes “everyone sensible now accepts that teaching is best done by ability”. A perfect case of sacrificing children’s prospects on the basis of dogma and ideology?


However the real frustration is that this debate is clearly a sideshow and distraction. It is obvious that selectivity will not increase social mobility. The fact remains that as Dr John Goldthorpe has shown, it is children’s home backgrounds, which determine success in education. So the debate is not about education, it is about inequality and class. It is these issues that need to be tackled. Yet as Danny Dorling argues:

“We have an educational system that is designed to polarise people, one that creates an elite who can easily come to have little respect for the majority of the population, who think that they should earn extraordinarily more than everyone else, and defines the jobs of others as so low-skilled that it apparently justifies many living in relative poverty.”

Thankfully, Jeremy Corbyn has clearly stated his opposition to May’s retrogressive plan to re-boot the grammar school model. In the past Labour’s criticism of educational segregation has been undermined by the willingness of senior members of the party to send their own children to such schools. Hopefully, Corbyn’s uncompromising opposition to the economics of austerity will be translated into an equally unequivocal attack on the politics of educational apartheid.

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