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