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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.