Grammar schools have always excelled at sifting out the lower orders

Social mobility for the few.

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A deep soul-sapping longing for the grammar school afflicts the English, especially when there’s a general election in the offing. Thus, the usual tired old arguments about grammar schools are being trotted out by Ukip and the Tory right, those unlikely champions of social mobility. Fortunately, there’s an antidote: nobody wants their child to fail the 11+ and nobody wants to fund a secondary modern in every town.

A YouGov opinion poll in June 2013 showed overwhelming support for more grammars in Greater London, with even 57 per cent of Labour voters supporting the idea. "And it’s easy to see why," argued a recent piece on the Daily Telegraph website. "They taught a traditional curriculum, along with good discipline, smart uniforms and plenty of team sports. In short, they were like high-performing private schools, without the hefty fees."

But let’s be honest. Is it really academic excellence we hanker after, or simply the desire to educate our children in a safe, white middle-class enclave?

If the motives are selfish and snobbish – I want the best for my children regardless of the impact on others – the grammar school is the ideal solution. First, because by definition a selective system can only serve a minority, and second, because the reality is that grammar schools have always excelled at sifting out the lower orders.

Parents in the conservative heartlands in the early Seventies, the imagined heyday of the grammar schools, knew only too well that they could only ever serve a minority, whatever their social qualifications for entry. If the grammars represented excellence, the alternative could only be average or inferior, and nobody wanted that for their children. So conservatives pressurized a Tory Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher, to disband them and abolish the 11+, "a tragedy", according to Boris Johnson. That is why they make up only 4 per cent of the state secondary system today.

Then and now, grammar schools discriminated against the parents who are less adept at making the school system work for their children, just as it did against their parents. Studies in the Sixties showed that few unskilled working-class children gained entry and fewer still left with a decent qualification. As David Willetts argued compellingly in the speech that got him sacked as shadow education secretary in 2007, just 2 per cent of children at grammar schools were on free school meals when those low income children made up 12 per cent of the school population in their areas – a less than stunning contribution to social mobility.

The truth is that the grammar schools’ greatest contribution to social mobility is to spare middle-class parents the expense of private education – the real reason that David Davis and Nigel Farage are rooting for a grammar school in every town, although notably not for the less popular programme of a secondary modern in every town. 

The alternative, if we are serious about enabling all our children to excel – practically and academically – is to build on the massive improvements in state education in the last 15-20 years now coming to fruition. That means ensuring that the lessons learned in the best comprehensives about leadership and teaching are built into them all. It won’t happen over night but it offers the best prospects for all our children, not just the lucky few.

Martin Yarnit leads the think tank Compass' work on local education reform, and writes about education