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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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity