Grammar Schools: Theresa May’s Social Mobility Fallacy


In the UK, we have some of the lowest rates of social mobility in the developed world. Of all the countries in the OECD, our earnings in later life are most likely to reflect those of our parents. You might think that such disturbing figures would prompt policymakers to search for new and innovative ways to tackle Britain’s social mobility crisis. Unfortunately, you would be wrong.

In a sadly predictable move, the Conservative Party has reached again for the only silver bullet they seem to know – Grammar Schools. With the idea of selective education resurfacing with the support of Theresa May, plans have been unveiled for around £50 million per year to be invested in expanding existing Grammar Schools and opening new ones. The key claim behind the pledge is that new Grammars will help create “a true meritocracy” and help bright working-class children achieve their potential.  As was swiftly stated by outgoing Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw, such assertions are quite simply “nonsense”.

The much-vaunted ‘golden age of grammars’ is a myth easily debunked by the experiences of children across counties in the UK which still have selective systems in place, such as Kent and Buckinghamshire. The data from these counties establishes clear and striking trends. Firstly, few working-class children even make it through the gates of Grammar Schools and are overwhelming rejected by the selective system. Of the 164 Grammar Schools that still exist in the UK, only 3 have more than 10% of pupils who receive free school meals, whilst the average figure for Comprehensive schools is 14%.

As well as already holding significant advantages over their classmates (such as the greater likelihood of growing up in household were academic excellence is valued and supported) children from more affluent backgrounds are able to use the wealth of their parents to ensure they are better prepared for the 11-plus (or whatever testing advocates of new grammars wish to put in place) through private tutoring. As well as being an immoral and arbitrary way of labelling children as successes and failures at a young age, this testing stacks the odds clearly in the favour of children lucky enough to have financial clout behind them. And even when children from deprived backgrounds manage to overcome their disadvantages to achieve the same grades aged 11, they are still less likely to take up a place at a Grammar. No evidence presented thus far has come close to proving that an expansion of grammars will do much, if anything, to change the demographic of their intake.

The results of all this are very clear. Whilst advocates of Grammar Schools wish to focus on the chosen ones who make it to the promised land of the local Grammar, they and the system they support neglects those left behind. In selective areas, not only is the attainment gap between the poorest and richest children far greater than in comprehensive areas, but the poorest achieve far lower grades when directly compared to their comprehensive counterparts. Selection also doesn’t just cause disparity in the grades achieved at school, it entrenches these inequalities for a lifetime. The gap in annual average earnings between the richest and poorest 10% is over £7,000 greater among those schooled in selective areas.

The evidence that Grammars even necessarily provide a higher quality education for their pupils, is rather thin on the ground, to say the least. Despite their clear advantages of having a greater concentration of kids from more affluent and supportive households, almost 40% of Grammar School students failed to attain more than 3 O-Levels in 1959, when Grammars educated the top 20% of the cohort. Of those who achieved two or more A-Levels, just 0.3% were from working-class backgrounds.

‘Okay but how else are you going to cater for bright kids stuck in sub-standard comps?’ Reply proponents of selection, ‘is it not unfair that they are held back?’ But this presents only another myth which surrounds Grammar Schools – that we must choose between the values of equality and excellence. If we look across the globe, countries such as South Korea, Finland and Canada boast education systems that consistently rank among the world’s best, whilst also being proudly and strictly comprehensive. In the UK, the value of proper focus on and investment in comprehensive schools has been shown to reap rewards too. The ‘London Challenge’ scheme introduced under New Labour in 2002, saw London’s schools rise from the worst-performing in the country, to the best, with attainment rising substantially for pupils across the board.

Education is the greatest vehicle for driving social mobility and helping to achieve a meritocratic society, that much, has correctly identified. But greater selection is simply not the answer she claims it to be. Instead, it is only through a determined focus to raise standards in all schools and for all children that education can again act as a real driver of social progress. Re-introducing Grammar Schools is harking back to a non-existent golden age, entrenching social division rather than healing it – they are ’s social mobility fallacy.

Thankfully, a new age of selection is far from certain to be ushered in and even if May is to succeed in her quest, such efforts can be sure to meet strong opposition. With even the hapless Jeremy Corbyn able to put on the back foot over the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions, resistance from political opponents looks in ample supply, along with mumblings of dissent from within May’s own party. With only a slim majority, any attempts to pass legislation through Parliament will be sure to keep the Tory Whips busy. One can only therefore hope that Grammar Schools will become known as the first major reversal of May’s premiership.

Picture by Richard Harrison via Flickr

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