Grammar schools fail poor pupils – what's going wrong?

Grammar schools did not improve social mobility, as the popular myth would have it.

David Cameron and education secretary Michael Gove visit a free school on 3 September 2013. Photo: Getty.

Some like to imagine that grammar schools are a panacea to Britain’s lack of social mobility. Yet in Kent, which has 33 grammar schools, the system is making it harder for the poorest pupils to succeed.

This isn’t the opinion of a teaching union. It’s the verdict of Michael Gove and David Laws, both of whom have said that grammars aren’t doing enough to reach out to poor pupils. The statistics are damning: in the selective local authorities in the UK today, pupils in the poorest 40 per cent of families do worse than average and those on free school meals do especially badly. Rather than enabling the most deprived children to rise, educational streaming seems to choke off their development.

The entry test for grammar schools could have been designed for middle-class parents with the sharpest elbows: at two grammar schools in Kent, over 40 per cent of pupils previously attended a private prep school. This is social mobility but only for the middle classes. No wonder grammar schools are so popular: the richer your parents, the better you do in grammar systems compared to the national average.

What’s going wrong? A recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies argued that it was the application system or the admissions system that was responsible – or, most probably, both.

The most common counter-argument is that not enough poor pupils go to grammars because there are too few of them and they are limited to middle-class areas. Build more and everyone could achieve their potential. But in selective local authorities, kids on free school meals at grammars travel less far than those at non-selective schools.

There’s something intrinsic in the grammar school model that fails poorer pupils. While the phenomenon may be getting worse, it isn’t new: research has shown that overall educational achievement of the poorest pupils was no better relative to richer pupils during the height of the grammar school system. A few poor pupils did better but the majority performed worse academically.

That’s because those who miss the grades at 11 do worse than under the comprehensive system. Children are more perceptive than we realise: if they go to a second-class school, they behave like they’re second-class pupils.

The international evidence suggests that the later you divide children by ability, the better. In general, the younger children are placed on different academic tracks, the worse the country performs on the Pisa tests measuring educational attainment in OECD countries.

Grammar schools did not improve social mobility, as the popular myth would have it. The system only seemed to work because there was more room at the top; the probability of a working-class child getting a professional job relative to that of a middle-class child has remained constant for a century. It’s a delusion to think a return to grammar schools would positively transform British education. For the majority of the poorest children, it would make things worse.