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Leader: Grammar schools and social mobility

Rather than reinstating grammar schools, focusing on early-years education would be a more productive way of undermining the stranglehold of the privately educated on British life.

Nostalgia is ripe in British politics. It was evident in the vote to leave the European Union, as many saw it as a chance to reject modernity, globalisation and demographic change. It is evident, too, in the Conservative Party’s flirtation with reintroducing grammar schools, a policy that David Willetts, the former Tory MP and higher education minister, has described as “bring-backery”.

In many ways the desire to open new grammar schools is understandable. It reflects the correlation between poverty and educational failure, and exasperation at the continued domination of public life by those from private school, which the New Statesman has called the “Seven Per Cent Problem”. Research by the Sutton Trust has shown that the 7 per cent who go to private schools account for more than half of leading lawyers, medical professionals, journalists and actors. Even sport is not immune to the pre-eminence of the independently educated: 28 per cent of Team GB athletes at the Olympic Games in Rio went to private schools.

Any steps to erode the domination of public life by those from private schools should be welcomed. Yet the evidence suggests that grammar schools do not spread opportunity. In counties that maintain a selective system today, pupils from richer families usually do better – and those from poorer families usually do worse.

Part of the problem is the difficulty of designing a selection system that does not favour those with sharp-elbowed parents. The Sutton Trust has found that grammar-school pupils are four times more likely to have come from a private prep school than be on free school meals. Just 3 per cent of those at grammars receive free school meals, a sixth of the national average. Devising “tutor-proof” entrance exams has proved impossible. Surveys suggest that almost half of all those who take the eleven-plus have received some private tuition.

The notion that, in their postwar heyday, grammar schools ushered in an age of social mobility is a myth. The impression that society was becoming more meritocratic was caused by an unprecedented rise in numbers of middle-class jobs, creating “more room at the top”. The sociologist John H Goldthorpe has shown that relative social mobility – the chances for a working-class child to rise, against those for a middle-class child – has barely changed over the past century.

It is instructive that most of the countries that perform best in the Programme for International Student Assessment, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s
comparative testing of countries, do not select until late in education. Finland is the best-performing country in Europe: it does not separate pupils by ability until the age of 16. The OECD has also found that pupils are often less motivated in more selective systems. As Amanda Ripley notes in her influential book The Smartest Kids in the World, “There seemed to be some kind of ghetto effect: once kids were labelled and segregated into the lower track, their learning slowed down.”

Rather than reinstating grammar schools, focusing on early-years education would be a more productive way of undermining the stranglehold of the privately educated on British life. Currently, by the age of five, there is a 19-month gap in school readiness between the most and the least disadvantaged children. As long as this scandalous gulf remains, no amount of tinkering with secondary education will increase social mobility.

The government needs to recognise this through greater investment in nursery and primary schools and by increasing the number of hours of education that children enjoy in their early years. We must stop treating primary education as less important than
secondary education: apart from Estonia, the UK is the only one, out of 30 countries surveyed by the OECD, in which class sizes at primary school are greater than those at secondary-school level.

Any government focused on increasing social mobility, as Theresa May says she is, must give priority to increasing the opportunities for disadvantaged children in their very first years of life. That might not have the same nostalgic appeal as bringing back grammar schools, but it would be more effective in helping all children achieve their full potential. 

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear