Bring back grammar schools? Great news - for the rich

Beneath the populist chatter, Ukip's preferred policy - grammar schools - would do nothing for the poor.

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"If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England.”

 

This was the vehement proclamation of Labour Education Secretary Anthony Crosland, twenty years after the creation of the modern grammar school. Although a painfully incremental process, by the end of the Thatcher era, Crosland’s aspiration had been fulfilled. Almost every grammar school had been converted into an institution of mixed abilities and aptitudes. Indeed, few grammar schools now exist in modern Britain. To most of today’s political parties, particularly those on the left, the remaining grammar schools represent the lingering residue of a failed political experiment.

 

Expert in the politics of illusion, Ukip has not conformed to this common belief, however. As Nigel Farage reaffirmed at last week’s ‘rainbow’ leaders debate, Ukip will provide opportunities to the next generation by restoring the education system of the previous. It is claimed by Farage that, ‘by abolishing selective education, the ladder was pulled up, leaving less well-off kids behind’. Thus, if Ukip wins a majority in 2015 (which, thankfully, is not likely), the party will seek to open a grammar school ‘in every town’.

Superficially, Ukip’s rhetoric preaches a better world for the average man. After all, as Farage’s tweed-clad brigade righteously proclaims, Ukip is the ‘People’s Army’.  If the government gets rid of the foreigners, leaves the EU, and flattens taxes, the common Brit will have deeper pockets and a reinvigorated sense of national pride. Yet, a veil of populist morality belies the conservatism of Ukip’s political vision.

Indeed, few progressives would deny the validity of Farage’s discourse on education. A more socially mobile society, unhindered by the shackles of nepotism, is a core tenant of the modern political left. However, a renaissance of grammar education would fundamentally undermine Farage’s ostensible pursuit of social justice.

Presumably, as in the 1950s, intelligence tests would have to be employed to filter pupils under Farage’s proposed system. The best would succeed and gain access to the cherished grammar schools. The losers would be relegated to secondary modern schools, or analogous institutions. All would have an equal opportunity, regardless of background, to be allocated a school according to their natural abilities – in theory. In reality, social background would intrinsically determine an individual’s opportunity to succeed. A deprived child with access to few books would not have the same opportunity to succeed as an affluent child whose parents had been able to devote time and money to their intellectual development. In the 1950s and 1960s, the result was inevitable, as it would be today. Less than one-in-five children from manual, working-class backgrounds won a grammar school education. In contrast, over half of children from professional and business homes gained entry. Similarly, once at grammar school, the working-classes noticeably underperformed. A mere 0.3% of all grammar school pupils who achieved two A-levels were from unskilled working-class backgrounds.

Grammar schools were havens for middle-class students who experienced the self-assurance of being branded as intellectually superior. The unsuccessful majority were led to believe from the age of eleven that they were just not good enough. Secondary modern schools were described as “breeding grounds for juvenile delinquents”. This social stigma resided with pupils and sculpted their comparably limited chances in later life. Indeed, secondary modern graduates are likely, on average, to be over £7,000 worse off a year than grammar school leavers. The post-war education system provided a narrow, slanted ladder up which a few hastily climbed. For the majority of poor students, the ladder was decimated at the age of eleven.

In Ukip’s nostalgic utopia, a land with warm beer, white faces and a resuscitated grammar school system, the social stasis of the 1950s would be revived. Far from opening up new horizons for the poorest, this world would entrench the social privilege of the affluent middle. Garbed in a populist rhetoric, Ukip has seized the image of a working man’s party. But, beneath the pinstriped suit, it’s nothing of the kind.

 

Sam Bright is editor of the political website Backbench