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Ofsted chief exposes grammar school myths, but most are happy with nostalgia

Michael WilshawI cried yes, I would like to see all private schools and grammar schools closed down, and then told the man that sorry, the conversation would have to end, as I wanted to dance to Dusty Springfield. We had been arguing for what felt like half an hour. It had started off on another topic, but at some point along the way, my interlocutor saw cause to ask me “What’s wrong with private schools?”

Once again, I was in an argument about the British education system, and faced with simplistic and unintelligent arguments in defence of elitism. I hope I do not sound arrogant in this statement. Hearing an endlessly propagated but entirely unsubstantiated myth repeated again and again is enough to wear anyone down. The myth in question is that grammar schools assist social mobility, and it was rightfully ridiculed in Sunday’s Observer by Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw.

He is an unlikely ally in this cause. As the ex-head of New Labour flagship academy Mossbourne, Wilshaw is a champion of academy schools, which themselves contribute to a climate of educational elitism. His past comments, indeed, have been worryingly reminiscent of narratives of the deserving and undeserving poor, blaming parents for their childrens’ failures. He is also seen as close to Michael Gove and broadly in favour of the education secretary’s unfinished revolution.

But he is nonetheless persuaded by fact where many are not. His comments, indeed, seem to have been spat out with the rage they deserve: “Grammar schools are stuffed full of middle-class kids. A tiny percentage are on free school meals: Three per cent. That is a nonsense.”

The figures should leave nothing in dispute. But not to worry: some just won’t let facts get in the way of a romantic recollection of the good old days.

One of this number is Mark Thompson, a Lib Dem-supporting blogger with whom I took part in a half-hour radio debate on the British education system earlier this year. He appeared to have been invited onto the programme purely to defend Nick Clegg, who had just announced that he was considering sending his son to a private school. It all got rather excruciating when we moved on to discuss related issues. But the arguments he made are the same ones propagated by media barons and their readers alike. A worryingly-high proportion of the public support restoring academic selection within our state schools.

Thompson argued that there had been “a concerted campaign that comprehensives had to be for everyone” (you don’t say: the clue is in the name) and that “it did used to be that there were those schools  [grammar schools] which were available to children from poorer backgrounds, who did well enough…”. I asked how many children at grammar schools were on free school meals. He wouldn’t answer, but stubbornly said “there was an opportunity” for social mobility provided by grammar schools. “For very few”, I said. For all the Norman Tebbits (not a great advert for any school system) and the media anecdotes, where was the evidence?

“So why don’t we have more grammar schools then?”, retorted Thompson. Why on earth would more grammar schools produce greater social mobility when they currently impede it where they do exist? The man I argued with at the party suggested that I couldn’t possibly invoke the paucity of free school meal-eligible pupils at the remaining grammars. “The grammar schools left are in affluent areas, where there aren’t many people on free school meals anyway,” he argued. Less than three per cent, my friend? Not in Kent, the most famous county to retain academic selection for secondary schools – where free school meals are claimed by no less than 11.9 per cent (it is likely there are far more who are eligible but do not take them up).

This discussion was only a month or so after James Bloodworth, writing in the Independent, claimed that social mobility had declined significantly in line with the decline in grammar schools. His evidence was that Oxbridge now takes a smaller proportion of pupils from the state sector than it did in the 1970s – yet there was no accounting for the unspoken truth that many middle class parents who would be happy with a grammar school education can now only satisfy their snobberies with private schools.

Wilshaw’s statement of the obvious is unlikely to put an end to this absurd and unsubstantiated navel-gazing. Grammar schools fail the social mobility test, pure and simple. But should this be the measure of success in our schools? Do we really want to live in a society that is happy for the majority of the poor to remain on the scrapheap while a few scrape through? That, after all, is pretty much what “social mobility” is all about.

And of course “more grammar schools” would not solve this either: selective education relies on creaming off an (overwhelmingly-middle-class) elite for its “excellence” and to serve the snobberies of its patrons. Now the  the unchallenged circus of grammar school nostalgia has been skewered, it’s a debate we need to have.

One Comment

  1. James Martin says:

    It always makes me laugh that those who endlessly call for the return to grammar schools never seem to also call for the return to secondary moderns (or in reality second class schools), and yet you can’t have one without the other can you?

    That said, the old soak Wilshaw is not consistent. His support for Gove and the DfE ripping apart democratically accountable state education and replacing with free schools and academies is creating significant numbers of academy led ‘studio schools’ and ‘university technical colleges’ which are solely to provide ‘vocational’ training and where other local academies will dump their bottom 15% or so of academic low achievers in order to boost their own A-C pass rates. Reverse selection by the back door in other words, not that our Shadow Education spokesperson appears to have noticed, let alone have developed a policy on it…

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