Equal opportunity, as most societies conceive it, is essentially a myth. Photo: Getty
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Grammar schools widen the gap between rich and poor. Why are we still surprised by this?

Meritocracy – embodied in the grammar school system – is concerned with achieving equality between equals and permitting inequality between un-equals.

Grammar schools lead to a widening of the income gap between rich and poor, according to new research. (I should know. I went to one.) In areas with a grammar school system, top earners are likely to earn £16.41 an hour more than those on the lowest incomes (that’s around £30,000 a year).

The research made the front page of today’s Independent. Perhaps it’s heartening inequality is headline news. Or it would be, if we didn’t know it all already.

We set up these enablers of inequality and then act surprised when they produce it. Grammar school children do better than comprehensive kids? That’s the point. Otherwise, why did we separate them in the first place? Dividing two sets of people by current advantage creates future advantage. Just ask the offspring of the wealthy walking into private schools and out the other end into this country’s power and money.

If we wanted children to be equal, we’d treat them equally – or, at least, start believing they were equal in the first place. And that’s just it. We don’t. We have convinced ourselves – somewhere between political rhetoric of “life taking children as far as their talents can take them” and building a school system with the aim of choice rather than equality – that a chosen few are set for success in life and our job is to get them there.

Both bits are lies. They’re a product of two things: our believe that intelligence is somehow natural and deserved, and our comfort with a system that gives us one shot (if you’re lucky) at life and puts the losers and winners into two piles. That which pile you end up in is generally down, not to what you did, but the family you came from, is just an added twist to the game.

Merit doesn’t sit in a box, fastened up and labelled “mine”. It’s both a result and cause of vast differences in wealth. There’s a reason two thirds of pupils on free school meals don’t get at least five A* to C GCSEs (including English and Maths) and it is not because the working class are stupid. The intelligence a child shows – including how well they do in a test at eleven – is due to the way developmental conditions relate to their genes. There is no such thing as a fair – let alone equal – chance when some children grow in conditions that nurture and others in places that crush. 

Equal opportunity, as most societies conceive it, is essentially a myth. It should really read: equal opportunity between children of equal ability. Meritocracy – embodied in the grammar school system – is concerned with achieving equality between equals and permitting inequality between un-equals. Are you smart? Then have a lump of opportunity. A little slow? Then have a little less.

Moving away from this would entail abandoning a belief that some children start off smarter, as if we – complicit in an economic system that sees some have everything and others nothing – are not responsible for what happens to them. It would mean working to a system that doesn’t fetishize the ‘one chance to make it’ philosophy; setting up SATS, GCSEs and degrees as one path and one that, if you lose, means you don’t get another chance to win.

Fishkin, in his new book Bottlenecks: A new theory of Equal Opportunity, warns of the current system:

Focusing on a single outcome scale – any outcome scale – results in a somewhat flat and limited picture of how opportunities matter in our lives… In a hypothetical modern society I call ‘the big test society’, there are a number of careers and professions, but all prospects of pursuing any of them depend on one’s performance on a single test administer at age sixteen.  …Even though people are pursuing different goals, they will all focus their efforts (and any advantages they can give their children) on the big test, since all prospects depend on its results. Such a test is an extreme example of what I call a “bottleneck”, a narrow place in the opportunity structure through which one must pass in order to successfully pursue a wide range of valued goals.

It is only worse that how we get through the “bottleneck” in this country (like most) is defined by something as arbitrary as the wealth of the conditions in which we’re raised – distracted from, painted as our natural intelligence and a destiny we are truly deserving of. This has never been about the fight for equality. We shouldn’t be surprised when clinging to it – a system that gives a special minority a private or grammar school education – has helped to cement inequality.

Five million children in Britain could be “sentenced to a lifetime of poverty” by 2020 because of social security cuts, according to this week’s Save the Children findings. What future are we expecting for them, exactly? The children whose parents can’t afford to feed their brains, let alone pay the private fees or buy the 11 plus practice books. Still, those born smart will be alright. Let’s hope they’re in the catchment area for a grammar school.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage