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Grammar schools do nothing to promote social mobility

MorganLast week it was announced that the first new grammar school in a long time is to be opened in Kent. It’s using a loophole in the law by claiming that it’s really an expansion of an existing school – even though they’re nine miles apart. Apparently, in order to prove it’s one school, kids will have to be bussed backwards and forwards.

This is being presented as an unusual one-off event which doesn’t mean Tory policy is changing. According to Nicky Morgan “I don’t want to fight the battles of selective and non-selective… This is one particular application with one particular set of circumstances. Why would I deny a good school the right to expand?”

But in fact it’s clear that this will not be a one-off. The Guardian is already reporting that, “The government’s controversial decision to approve the first selective school in 50 years looks set to prompt a series of similar applications for ‘satellite’ developments to existing grammar schools.”

Buckinghamshire looks like being first in the queue with a plan cooked up with Tories in Windsor and Maidenhead to open a new school – sorry, an extension – in an authority where currently all the schools are comprehensive.

What is now clear is that on this issue, as on many others, the reactionary wing of the Tory party is increasingly calling the shots and Cameron is too weak to stop them. Back in 2007, David Willetts, then Tory shadow minister said “We must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids … there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it”. Almost certainly today’s decision is not one that Michael Gove would have made. For all his faults, he did believe that education needs to work for all children. In the modern world it can’t be about just selecting out a minority of pupils for favoured treatment.

Sadly this decision may have been caught up in the Tory leadership campaign which looks like running for the next four years. However improbable it may seem, apparently Nicky Morgan thinks she has a chance. Certainly Theresa May, who is involved in the Windsor and Maidenhead proposal, thinks she does. Both it seems are using this issue to appeal to the Tory grass roots – or at least to what is left of them.

Grammar schools of course are defended as engines of social mobility. The myth of the poor bright child rescued by a grammar school education is pervasive. But it’s also completely wrong. And it always was wrong.

Back in the so-called golden age of grammar schools, there was plenty of research showing how, even if kids from working class backgrounds got to grammar school, there were lots of ways in which schools failed those children. More recently Selina Todd devoted her Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture for the SEA to debunking the myth of the grammar school.

The reality now is that working class children don’t get to grammar school. Even where two children have the same key stage 2 results, the middle class child is far more likely to get to grammar school. The numbers of children on free meals at grammar schools is pitiful. Grammar schools are dominated by those with private tutors and even those from independent primary schools. So this decision will do nothing for social mobility – actually it will reduce the opportunities for poor children by lowering academic standards in the schools they do go to.

This is of course becoming the standard approach of this government. It talks the talk, as Cameron did in his conference speech. But what it does is quite different whether you’re talking about tax credits, social housing, devolution, the NHS and now schooling.

But the left can’t be complacent on this issue. The evidence may be on our side but too many people haven’t heard it and believe that selection will make things better. Back in February YouGov asked a question to two different samples. Half were asked if they’d like to bring back grammar schools across the whole of Great Britain – 53% said yes, 20% said no. The other half were asked if they’d like to bring back the system of an exam at 11, with 25% of children who passed going to grammar schools and the other 75% going to secondary moderns. Now 46% of people supported it, 34% of people were opposed.

This needs to be a wake-up call. The international evidence about what kind of system works best is clear. It’s clear too that selective education consolidates class advantage rather than challenging it. As Michael Wilshaw said “grammar schools are stuffed full of middle-class kids. A tiny percentage are on free school meals: 3%. That is a nonsense. Anyone who thinks grammar schools are going to increase social mobility needs to look at those figures. I don’t think they work.”

Maybe this decision will provoke a reaction and will force the issue out into the open. This decision needs to be fought not just in the courts but in every possible forum or we will find ourselves once more entrenching privilege and wasting talent – we can afford to do neither.

John Bolt is the General Secretary of the Socialist Educational Association.

This blog originally appeared at Education for Everyone


  1. Verity says:

    Grammar Schools combined two things of course; academic selection and social segregation amongst children. I think Comprehensive Schools can and do have academic selection, very often by a setting system such that child may be differently ‘setted’ by different subjects. If the intention of such a scheme is to provide a more focused attention where it is needed and the composition of sets varies flexibly according to progress of the the child over time then I personally see no problem with this. What is the problem in my eyes is the social segregation that occurs amongst children by being in separate schools and not having the opportunity to mix at a social, emotional and physical level. I think the two arguments are distinct and in my opinion ought to be argued as separate issues. The presentation of the argument into these two distinct themes would in my opinion more easily undermine the case for Grammar Schools.

  2. Bazza says:

    From a poor working class background I actually passed the 11+ but rejected the Grammar School – there was no way I was going to that posh school.
    As an adult education tutor years later some of our working class trade union students had to write about their educational experiences and one working class woman wrote about how she and her friend had passed the 11+ and took up their places at an all girls grammar school in a nearby city.
    But they were bullied and made to feel small by the posher middle class girls re their clothes etc. and they both left, driven out; they got what I had anticipated.
    I read years later that grammar schools each year took a quota so one year you could get 55% and get in but the next year your brother or sister could could get 60% and not get in.
    Some argue also that with private extra tuition the middle class were also coached to get in so perhaps not a level playing field after all.
    I also read how the working class generally spoke in a restricted code whilst the middle class spoke in a more unrestricted code – we were direct and basically the middle class used more adjectives but they would automtically share a ‘language’ with the middle class teachers while we were outsiders.
    It all really goes back to what education is for in a capitalist society and I would argue it is to produce a Wheat (in the case of grammar schools a generally loyal set of managers who felt part of the elite) and a Chaff to do the dull and mundane jobs to create the wealth and make societies work.
    Exams it could be argued are elaborate memory tests to make millions feel talented and intelligent and to make millions of others feel failures (which some sadly may believe all of their lives).
    There was an interesting report on the BBC a few years ago re the Upper Class Welfare State subsidised public schools and it said most of the parents who sent their kids there did it not for the education in itself but for the social networks it could open them up to.
    I didn’t do too bad and although I may have drifted from dull office job to dull office job I felt fulfilment in voluntary community work and the Labour Party (when you felt you could change the World with others – which hopefully we are now getting back to) and someone once said you learn more in a strike than in years of formal education!
    I ended up as a mature student with a degree (and read Paulo Freire plus Paul Frolich’s bigraphy of Rosa Luxemburg plus loved the music of John Lennon) plus got a postgrad, & Masters Degree and worked at a university.
    And I have always been a democratic socialist dedicated to working to redistribute wealth, eliminate poverty and to address climate change etc etc. but also fundamentally to help build an education system which nurtures a world of critical thinkers! Yours in solidarity!

  3. Jon says:

    “The numbers of children on free meals at grammar schools is pitiful.”

    Nothing to do with the remaining Grammar schools are mostly in middle-class areas then……?

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