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

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.