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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

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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