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: What happened at Tom Watson's birthday party?

Finances, fair and foul – and why Keir Starmer is doing the time warp.

Keir Starmer’s comrades mutter that a London seat is an albatross around the neck of the ambitious shadow Brexit secretary. He has a decent political CV: he was named after Labour’s first MP, Keir Hardie; he has a working-class background; he was the legal champion of the McLibel Two; he had a stint as director of public prosecutions. The knighthood is trickier, which is presumably why he rarely uses the title.

The consensus is that Labour will seek a leader from the north or the Midlands when Islington’s Jeremy Corbyn jumps or is pushed under a bus. Starmer, a highly rated frontbencher, is phlegmatic as he navigates the treacherous Brexit waters. “I keep hoping we wake up and it’s January 2016,” he told a Westminster gathering, “and we can have another run. Don’t we all?” Perhaps not everybody. Labour Remoaners grumble that Corbyn and particularly John McDonnell sound increasingly Brexitastic.

To Tom Watson’s 50th birthday bash at the Rivoli Ballroom in south London, an intact 1950s barrel-vaulted hall generous with the velvet. Ed Balls choreographed the “Gangnam Style” moves, and the Brockley venue hadn’t welcomed so many politicos since Tony Blair’s final Clause IV rally 22 years ago. Corbyn was uninvited, as the boogying deputy leader put the “party” back into the Labour Party. The thirsty guests slurped the free bar, repaying Watson for 30 years of failing to buy a drink.

One of Westminster’s dining rooms was booked for a “Decent Chaps Lunch” by Labour’s Warley warrior, John Spellar. In another room, the Tory peer David Willetts hosted a Christmas reception on behalf of the National Centre for Universities and Business. In mid-January. That’s either very tardy or very, very early.

The Labour Party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, is a financial maestro, having cleared the £25m debt that the party inherited from the Blair-Brown era. Now I hear that he has squirrelled away a £6m war chest as insurance against Theresa May gambling on an early election. Wisely, the party isn’t relying on Momentum’s fractious footsloggers.

The word in Strangers’ Bar is that the Welsh MP Stephen Kinnock held his own £200-a-head fundraiser in London. Either the financial future of the Aberavon Labour Party is assured, or he fancies a tilt at the top job.

Dry January helped me recall a Labour frontbencher explaining why he never goes into the Commons chamber after a skinful: “I was sitting alongside a colleague clearly refreshed by a liquid lunch. He intervened and made a perfectly sensible point without slurring. Unfortunately, he stood up 20 minutes later and repeated the same point, word for word.”

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

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 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era