Boris Johnson has hailed the alleged benefits of selective education. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Grammar schools don’t help the poor – the evidence grows

Selective education works for the chosen few, but the rest do worse than under a non-selective system. 

There is an iron law in British politics. When there's nothing else to talk about – with all due respect to the clumsy Lord Oakeshott – have a blazing row about grammar schools.
 
Today, new research from the Institute of Education steps into the breach. Among those born between 1961 and 1983, the difference in the average wages of the bottom and top 10 per cent is significantly higher - £16.41 per hour rather than £12.33 per hour – for those born in areas of selective schooling. But this isn't just about those who have made it earning even more: the lowest-paid from selective areas earn £0.89 less per hour than those from non-selective authorities.
 
The finding reinforces what we already know: selective education works for the chosen few, but the rest do worse than under a non-selective system. As the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, recently said, grammar schools are "stuffed full of middle-class kids". That is terrible news for the most deprived pupils. As I have noted before (and Chris Cook shows) in 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. Overall, educational attainment is about the same between selective and non-selective authorities - richer pupils do better than average in selective ones, with poorer ones performing worse.
 
The wider lessons are clear, too: the best-performing nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment are those that wait to separate children by academic attainment. The toughest standards are demanded by all, not merely those who do best in exams at 11. Pupils in selective school systems actually scored lower on the most recent maths tests than those done in 2003.
 
None of this is likely to convince those who maintain that restricting grammar schools - there are only 164 left - has single-handedly caused the problems with British education. The truth is more sobering. The debate about selective education suffers from a selection bias: we only ever hear from those who went to grammars and attribute their success to it, never those whose education suffered after failing to get in. A recent academic paper found that "any assistance to low-origin children provided by grammar schools is cancelled out by the hindrance suffered by those who attended secondary moderns" and "comprehensive schools were as good for mobility as the selective schools they replaced". And this was before an industry developed of tutors preparing those who could afford it for the tests 
 
Politicians like to harrumph that social mobility has collapsed; in fact, as Philip Collins has shown, it has remained static for a century. Peddling old myths about the effects of grammar schools isn't going to change that. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.