- Henry Riley
‘The prospect of bringing back grammar schools has always been wrong’. Whilst David Cameron’s sentiment was arguably valid in premise, it did not suffice to expose the delusions proudly held by proponents of the regressive policy. However, Cameron’s rhetoric became rather more adequate: highlighting how the debate was not only ‘pointless’ and ‘sterile’, but furthermore that advocates of grammar schools were undeniably ‘deluded’.
Rhetoric surrounding the controversial reform to British schools resurfaced after the EU Referendum. Cynics may ponder whether the timely revival of this archaic debate was a ploy to distract voters from the confusion of when Article 50 would be invoked, or rather, a supine attempt by Theresa May to garner a radical reputation in contrast to her bland predecessor. Thus far, the latter has proven an unsuccessful endeavour with many defining both their reputations as ambivalence on Brexit and failure to secure majorities against two of the weakest Labour leaders in history.
However, the most baffling aspect of May’s flirtation with grammar schools is the lack of public appetite for them. In 2016, YouGov found only 38% wanted the government to build more grammar schools. And in arguably the largest opinion poll of 2017 – the General Election – saw two the only two parties that pledged to end the ban on new grammar schools meet disaster: UKIP garnered a pathetic 1.8% of the national vote, and the Conservative lost their majority. Whilst it would be fallacious to assume that the Conservatives lost their majority due to grammar schools – indeed, May’s lack of leadership and dismal campaign were sufficient enough for this – the very fact that this aspect of the manifesto has not progressed illustrates yet more ambiguity surrounding the policy. Even the Chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, conceded that the pledge to ‘lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools’ would be replaced with a ‘modest pilot’. Is it little wonder that May’s main influence on grammar schools – former chief of staff Nick Timothy – is now no longer even in his job? It seems that May’s plan to revive the poisoned chalice of grammar schools has matched her recent General Election barometer of success.
Whilst arguments supporting grammar schools might initially appear enticing, they are often selective with the empirical evidence they utilise in castigating Tony Blair’s decision to ban new selective schools. Even at their peak in 1965-66, only 18% of grammar-school students achieved 5 O-levels (equivalent to GCSE’s) and more bleakly only 6% attained 3 or more A-levels. Contemporary proponents hark back to a rose-tinted view of educational excellence which was antithetical to the reality at the time.
Regardless of these indefensible results, advocates adumbrate of working class children being empowered to climb the social ladder and achieve their potential, in ways which are apparently inconceivable within a comprehensive system. The reality is, however, that grammar schools have been far from a bastion of working class opportunism. Alan Milburn, who chairs the government’s social mobility commission, recently revealed how pupils at England’s remaining 163 selective state schools were ‘four or five’ times more likely to come from an independent prep school rather than from a disadvantaged background. Exponents respond to this factual claim by highlighting that with more grammar schools, this would be alleviated. Fortunately, one can counter this claim by drawing upon the region of England with the highest proportion of selective education: Kent.
In Kent, whilst the issue stems from dismal longstanding government failure rather than the grammar system itself, the evidence does not bode well for selective education supporters. Even as recently as May 2017, a study of education in the county found that grammar schools have consistently failed to identify ‘the most academically capable children’. This research by Education Datalab on the 2015 examinations found that only 12% of pupils on free school meals passed the 11-plus, compared to 30% of their peers. Hardly an opportunity for working class children. Rather, one for wealthy parents able to spoil their children with an abundance of tutorage.
It is unfair to judge children solely on an 11-plus exam. Children in education are not automated beings – they can flourish at a later age. And if grammar schools truly unlock potential, then how can one justify discriminating against those who develop at a later age? Why must the alternative to private schools also rely on income or geographical location – in itself positively correlated with income? And do we ever consider, as former Labour MP Roy Hattersley highlights, the potential adverse psychological impact of labelling those that do not pass as ‘failures’ at such a young age? We need an open, honest debate about the state of education in Britain; but this must start with quashing the misguided narrative that grammar schools are a wonderful meritocratic alternative.