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9 March 2017

Why do Tories love grammar schools?

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

By Jonn Elledge

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.

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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.

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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?