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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.

A pupil raises a hand to answer a question in class. Photo: Getty
Equal opportunity, as most societies conceive it, is essentially a myth. Photo: Getty

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.