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4 June 2007

The thinking: When politicians use their brains

Peter Wilby on telling the truth about grammar schools

By Peter Wilby

David Willetts’s now famous (or, to some, notorious) speech to the CBI last month was one of the most intelligent and stimulating by a front-line politician in recent years. But politicians, particularly Tories, cannot let their brains too far off the leash. To say grammar schools are no longer the key to social mobility was provocative enough to most party members (Graham Brady, the Europe spokesman, resigned after the chief whip reprimanded him for trying to prove Willetts wrong on the NS website). If Willetts had spoken even more truths, he would not have escaped with his life from the 1922 Committee.

For example, he explained that grammar schools cannot now select fairly at 11 because children come from such diverse backgrounds.

Compared with the mid-1960s, when Willetts sat his eleven-plus, or with the mid-1950s, when I sat mine, many more children from poor homes suffer family breakdown or lack English as a first language. Equally, the middle classes, who always had an advantage in cultural capital, now invest more of that capital in their children. Like Willetts’s parents, mine didn’t transport me to tennis or music lessons, or pay for private tuition to get me through exams. I knew one child who was taken to every historic home within reach, but his father was a roadsweeper.

Willetts’s analysis is incomplete in three respects, however. First, the chief source of diversity is family money: largely because of 17 years of Tory rule, the poor became (relatively) much poorer, the affluent became (relatively and absolutely) more affluent. Second, selection was never class-neutral: in the grammar schools’ heyday, the chances of a middle-class child being selected were one in three (the parents of the other two in three persuaded the Tories to let selection die), those for a working-class child one in seven, and far less if the home was unskilled working-class. Today, according to research on areas that have grammar schools (The Result of Eleven-Plus Selection by Adele Atkinson, Paul Gregg and Brendon McConnell, Centre for Market and Public Organisation, Bristol University), the chances of a clever child from a poor home getting selected are not much better than half those for other clever children.

Third, significant social mobility never existed. Rather, the first three or four decades after the Second World War saw an unprecedented and unrepeatable change in occupational structure. The number of professional jobs grew rapidly, allowing those from humble backgrounds to move up. That expansion has slowed at the same time as many more women from middle-class backgrounds have entered professional careers.

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In other words, a working-class child could once ascend the occupational ladder without a middle-class child climbing down. That is no longer so. If politicians really want high social mobility, they must, as one sociologist has said, arrange for more middle-class children to fail.

There are other things Willetts, as a politician, cannot say. For example, what makes an “excellent” school is the children who go to it. This is not to say schools cannot make a difference but the ability, motivation, behaviour and cultural capital of its pupils are more important. In the same way, Sir Alex Ferguson could no doubt improve Torquay United, but he could not propel them to the top of football’s Premiership. Grammar and fee-charging schools are “excellent” because they select their entrants, the top comprehensives because they serve favoured areas or covertly weed out less desirable children.

Most claims made for “improved” schools are also nonsensical. Some changed their intakes, recruiting more of the “best” children. Others, as Warwick Mansell, a Times Educational Supplement journalist, shows in a new book (Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing, Politico’s), redefined success. They entered pupils for a vocational qualification which, bureaucrats have mysteriously decreed, is the equivalent of four GCSEs at grades A-C. The course, according to Mansell, “is used to hide otherwise low performance from the public”.

Willetts bravely provoked Conservatives by puncturing the grammar school myth. He left other myths unchallenged: the grammar school golden age, social mobility, excellent schools, failing schools and improving schools. I do not blame him. As T S Eliot might have written, politicians cannot speak very much reality.