5 reasons why a return to grammar schools is a bad idea

December 5, 2014

The single biggest predictor of how a child will do at the age of 16 is the educational qualifications of their parents. That stark fact ought to dominate education discussion in England, and any Secretary of State for Education should therefore have it as their priority to ensure everyone can succeed regardless of background. Despite some positive indications of change, there are still huge gaps between the poorest and richest children which begin from the moment of birth and increase through early years and primary education.

One of the most heartening developments over the past decade has been a cross party focus on how best we can raise performance and close the gap. Such an approach is grounded in evidence – from high performing countries across the world, and also from the best schools in this country – which shows that only by focussing efforts on raising standards for all, rather than offering solutions or escapes for a few, can we achieve the scale of improvement across the system which changes lives.

But enter grammar schools – back in the public debate as a solution for improving outcomes and allowing poorer children in particular to escape the circumstances of their birth. At least two applications for new ‘satellite’ grammar schools are shortly to land on Nicky Morgan’s desk, Boris Johnson has called them ‘an important part of the mix’, and Liam Fox, David Davis and Dominic Raab are amongst senior Conservatives endorsing the Conservative Voice campaign calling for the 2015 manifesto to allow wholly new selective schools to open – as UKIP already supports.

According to their advocates, the steady abolition of grammars throughout the 1960s and 1970s was a prime reason behind declining social mobility during the latter 20th century, and an expansion of selective schools would turbocharge mobility in the future. There is only one issue with this argument. That is – and there is really no easy way to put this – it is not true.

1. Grammar schools left non-attendees behind in terms of grades…

A whole raft of evidence from a range of studies in recent years shows convincingly how increased social mobility post war reflected a one off structural shift in the economy with an expansion of white collar jobs; and that grammar schools may have provided a better outcome for those few who attend them, but such benefits are entirely cancelled out, and more besides, by the negative consequences for the majority in these areas who attend secondary moderns. Such harms reveal themselves through lower academic qualifications for those left behind, as shown by Chris Cook in the FT (above).

2. …and pay in later life

Likewise, the Institute for Education has shown a considerably bigger gap between the wages of the highest and lowest paid individuals born in areas with a selective education system than in comprehensive areas. In other words, grammar schools entrench social division, rather than solve it.

3. Grammar schools take fewer poor students

But maybe this is a price worth paying, if it allows for the poor but brilliant students to be lifted into a better life? Again, the facts simply do not bear this out. Nearly all grammar schools – 161 out of the 164 remaining – have fewer than 10%  of pupils eligible for Free School Meals, 98 have fewer than 3%, and 21 have fewer than 1%. It is undeniably the poor who are losing out.

So is this because the relatively few still remaining have become magnets for the affluent; those who can pay private tutors to beat the 11+ exams? Maybe. But sadly for selection advocates, there is no evidence an expansion of grammars would benefit everyone equally. Firstly, any expansion which selected high attaining children at 11 would still be dominated by the middle classes. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that more deprived children are significantly less likely to go to a grammar than the most advantaged, even when pupils achieve equally good results aged 11. And the recent ‘tutor proof’ 11+ test in Buckinghamshire has proved anything but, with the percentages from independent prep schools going to grammars actually increasing.

4. Grammar schools did not necessarily provide a good education…

And secondly, we know that an expansion of grammars didn’t help the poor in the past. In 1959, when grammars educated the top 20% or so of the cohort, nearly 40% of these pupils failed to pass more than three O-levels.

5. …especially for the poorest

And government studies at the time showed that it was the poorest within these schools who suffered. A third of those in grammars from the most deprived backgrounds left within a single O-Level. And fewer than 0.3 per cent of pupils leaving with two A-levels were from the unskilled working class.

So selection is undeniably not an answer in policy terms. But neither – perhaps equally importantly – is it good politics. We have surely tested to death the proposition that a Conservative party advocating ladders out for a few, via financial support into the independent sector or a return to grammar schools, can command popular support. Assisted places, state scholarships, the pupil passport – all have been offered up and roundly rejected at the ballot box. The answer, as Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan have both rightly argued, is to concentrate, single mindedly and without brooking opposition, on supporting schools that can lift standards for all, regardless of background.  And such schools do exist; schools which take children from all academic backgrounds and make huge strides towards closing the gap which poverty has created. King Solomon Academy, The Park Junior School, the Perry Beeches chain in Birmingham, ARK Conway Free School, and many more besides, all stand as beacons for what world class education for all can be. This – rather than the harking back to myths from the 1950s which never really existed – must be the focus of all political parties in 2015.

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