Show Hide image

Why do Tories love grammar schools?

No, it's not about social mobility. There are three reasons the Conservatives back selective education. 

Why do Tories love grammar schools so much?

Why the left would hate them is straightforward enough. Selective education entrenches class privilege via an exam, the 11 Plus, in which those who can afford tutoring have an advantage. It makes the vast majority of children feel like failures at the precious age of 11, leaving many – not least former deputy prime minister John Prescott – scarred for life.

Oh, and best of all, it doesn't work. Over the last few decades, England has been conducting a controlled experiment, in which some areas retain selective education while others go comprehensive. The results are clear: for all the claims that grammar schools create social mobility, attainment, especially among the poorest, is better in non-selective areas. Why would Labour want to abolish grammar schools? Take your pick.

But why the right would love grammar schools – how it was that, in a world so uninterested in public policy, a wonkish topic like selective education should have become one of the great Tory shibboleths – is rather harder to explain. More than that, it's a question that's rarely even asked. We simply accept it: Tories love grammar schools; dog bites man.

It certainly can't, as the party would have it, be because of any deeply held desire to increase social mobility in this country. Partly that's because, as noted, grammar schools do no such thing: they're populated overwhelmingly by rich kids. The only reason anyone even associates them with social mobility, I suspect, is that the golden age of grammar schools coincided with the post-war boom: the changing structure of the economy meant that more people would have moved up into the middle classes, regardless of which education system happened to be in place.

But I'm also not buying the idea that the Tories want to increase social mobility because of literally every other part of the party's platform. If the Tory membership really cared about social mobility, they'd want progressive taxes, infrastructure investment, Sure Start centres and libraries. The fact they're generally not fussed about such things suggests to me that social mobility is not really their big priority.

There are, to my mind, three other possible explanations for why the Tory party should be so committed to a policy that basically every educationalist on the planet says will make things worse.

One is that it's a sort of fetish for a particular type of education. Grammar schools represent academic rigour, competing houses, school ties and so forth. Comps, by contrast, represent prizes for all, riots in the corridors and Zammo sniffing glue. The fact that comprehensives aren't really like that at all is beside the point: Tory opposition is meant to communicate something about Tory values. It is, in other words, a sort of academic virtue-signalling.

Another possibility is that they know grammar schools are dominated by the middle classes, and they just don't care. In fact, they rather like the idea. This article on the Guido Fawkes blog (remember them?) argues that most Tories secretly think that kids from rich families are likely to be the clever ones anyway, and so it makes sense to give them the best education. This is self-serving, unscientific, and offensive – but it does have a certain logical consistency, even if it means the party is fibbing about its whole “social mobility” agenda.

The third option is something I'll term "It-worked-for-me-ism". It's no coincidence that Theresa May is a grammar school girl herself: she may very well think academic selection is good because, well, she went to a selective school, and now she's prime minister. 

It-worked-for-me-ism is a common problem in education policy: if you've climbed the ladder far enough to become education secretary, then the odds are you think your own education must have served you pretty well. So it was that Michael Gove, a man whose life had been transformed by a scholarship to the private Robert Gordon’s College, determined that the way to fix state education was to make state schools look as much like private ones as possible.

Which leads us neatly to the fourth possible explanation for the Tory love of grammar schools – one which, as it happens, might explain the party’s enthusiasm for Gove’s free schools, too. Once upon a time, if a moderately affluent Tory family who believed their kids were special wanted to get them an old-fashioned academic education, there was an easy answer: send them private.

But fees have exploded, from a pricy-but-achievable £3,000 per year in the late 1980s, to £15,600 by 2016. Many Tory parents, privately-educated themselves, will have found themselves unable to offer the same to their kids.

So what to do with the little darlings? Send them to grammar school, of course. All they need is a prime minister who cares more about the views of the Tory faithful than about doing what’s best for the country as whole. Remind you of anyone?

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Show Hide image

Universal Credit takes £3,700 from single working parents - it's time to call a halt

The shadow work and pensions secretary on the latest analysis of a controversial benefit. 

Labour is calling for the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) to be halted as new data shows that while wages are failing to keep up with inflation, cuts to in-work social security support have meant most net incomes have flat-lined in real terms and in some cases worsened, with women and people from ethnic minority communities most likely to be worst affected.

Analysis I commissioned from the House of Commons Library shows that real wages are stagnating and in-work support is contracting for both private and public sector workers. 

Private sector workers like Kellie, a cleaner at Manchester airport, who is married and has a four year old daughter. She told me how by going back to work after the birth of her daughter resulted in her losing in-work tax credits, which made her day-to-day living costs even more difficult to handle. 

Her child tax credits fail to even cover food or pack lunches for her daughter and as a result she has to survive on a very tight weekly budget just to ensure her daughter can eat properly. 

This is the everyday reality for too many people in communities across the UK. People like Kellie who have to make difficult and stressful choices that are having lasting implications on the whole family. 

Eventually Kellie will be transferred onto UC. She told me how she is dreading the transition onto UC, as she is barely managing to get by on tax credits. The stories she hears about having to wait up to 10 weeks before you receive payment and the failure of payments to match tax credits are causing her real concern.

UC is meant to streamline social security support,  and bring together payments for several benefits including tax credits and housing benefit. But it has been plagued by problems in the areas it has been trialled, not least because of the fact claimants must wait six weeks before the first payment. An increased use of food banks has been observed, along with debt, rent arrears, and even homelessness.

The latest evidence came from Citizens Advice in July. The charity surveyed 800 people who sought help with universal credit in pilot areas, and found that 39 per cent were waiting more than six weeks to receive their first payment and 57 per cent were having to borrow money to get by during that time.

Our analysis confirms Universal Credit is just not fit for purpose. It looks at different types of households and income groups, all working full time. It shows single parents with dependent children are hit particularly hard, receiving up to £3,100 a year less than they received with tax credits - a massive hit on any family budget.

A single teacher with two children working full time, for example, who is a new claimant to UC will, in real terms, be around £3,700 a year worse off in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12.

Or take a single parent of two who is working in the NHS on full-time average earnings for the public sector, and is a new tax credit claimant. They will be more than £2,000 a year worse off in real-terms in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12. 

Equality analysis published in response to a Freedom of Information request also revealed that predicted cuts to Universal Credit work allowances introduced in 2016 would fall most heavily on women and ethnic minorities. And yet the government still went ahead with them.

It is shocking that most people on low and middle incomes are no better off than they were five years ago, and in some cases they are worse off. The government’s cuts to in-work support of both tax credits and Universal Credit are having a dramatic, long lasting effect on people’s lives, on top of stagnating wages and rising prices. 

It’s no wonder we are seeing record levels of in-work poverty. This now stands at a shocking 7.4 million people.

Our analyses make clear that the government’s abject failure on living standards will get dramatically worse if UC is rolled out in its current form.

This exactly why I am calling for the roll out to be stopped while urgent reform and redesign of UC is undertaken. In its current form UC is not fit for purpose. We need to ensure that work always pays and that hardworking families are properly supported. 

Labour will transform and redesign UC, ending six-week delays in payment, and creating a fair society for the many, not the few. 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.