The opening of a new grammar school: bad for social mobility, good for Nicky Morgan

Populism for the middle class.

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For the first time in half a century, a new grammar school will open. Officially the 450-pupil site opening in Sevenoaks is an annex of the Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge, but the two sites are nine miles away. “It is difficult to say an umbilical cord nine miles long can be seen as part of a parent school and not as a new school,” Bob MacCartney, chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association and a huge advocate of grammars, recently admitted.

It might not be the last new grammar school to open. While Nicky Morgan has denied any intention to scrap the law passed in 1998 that forbids new grammar schools, other grammars will be encouraged to try and get new sites approved. And, regardless, the number of pupils at grammars has been going up on the sly: 33,000 more students go to grammar schools now than in 1998 (as I recently noted for the Economist). A higher proportion of pupils in England and Wales go to grammars than at any point since 1978.

Many on the Tory right still resent David Cameron for his intervention on grammar schools eight years ago: he called the debate about grammars “pointless” because “parents fundamentally don't want their children divided into sheep and goats at the age of 11”. They will be ecstatic with the news. The leadership chances of Nicky Morgan, who has flirted with trying to replace Cameron, have also received a significant boost: the Tory grassroots will appreciate how Morgan has helped selective education in a way that Michael Gove did not. 

But the opening of a new grammar school bodes less well for the most deprived children – exactly those who it is claimed new grammars will help. The 163 grammars in England today are not a “tool of social mobility”, as Boris Johnson said this year, but are fiefdoms for the middle-classes. Less than 3 per cent of grammar-school students receive free school meals, compared with 16 per cent of pupils across the state sector. In counties with selective education, poorer children do worse than elsewhere and rich kids do better, as Chris Cook has brilliantly shown

Admirable attempts have been made to make entrance exams to grammars “tutor-proof”. They have not worked. When Buckinghamshire pushed “tutor-proof” tests in 2013, children from local state primaries did even worse than before: a child from a private school in the county is three and a half times more likely to pass the 11-plus than one from a state primary. In selective local authorities, disadvantaged children are much less likely to go to grammar schools than richer children with the same grades, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found. The real winners of more grammar schools opening would not be those in need of a ladder up, but the parents of middle-class children, who know that a few thousand spend on tutoring for the entrance exams is far cheaper than a private education.

As an industry has developed around tutoring kids to get into grammars, so they have become worse for social mobility. But they were never nearly as good as is imagined. When many growing up in the 1950s and 1960s romanticise grammar schools as offering them a route to the top, they forget that they also benefited from “more room at the top”. As skilled jobs increased, so those from state schools could get top jobs without having to elbow those from private schools aside. And while Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher all liked to present themselves as rising from humble origins to become prime minister, their backgrounds were relatively middle-class by the standards of the times. So disadvantaged young people did not benefit from selective education in the way we are often told. “Any assistance to low-origin children provided by grammar schools is cancelled out by the hindrance suffered by those who attended secondary moderns," a British Journal of Sociology study in 2011 put it. "Comprehensive schools were as good for mobility as the selective schools they replaced." Even the right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange have found that grammar schools “may have provided a better outcome for those few who attend them, but such benefits are entirely cancelled out, and more besides, by the negative consequences for the majority in these areas who attend secondary moderns”.

Evidence from Europe also shows that the notion that restoring grammar schools will transform the quality of education in England and Wales is fool’s gold. Finland is the best performing country in Europe: it does not separate kids until the age of 16.

Morgan has rightly highlighted Poland as an example for the UK’s schools to follow: even though Poland spends over a third less than the UK per pupil, it is higher than the UK in the PISA rankings for reading, science and maths. While Poland has benefited from demanding more of its teachers and updating the curriculum, its more significant reform has been to delay academic separation until the age of 16. Less academic children benefit from more being demanded of them for longer. As Amanda Ripley notes in The Smartest Kids in the World: "There seemed to be some kind of ghetto effect: Once kids were labeled and segregated into the lower track, their learning slowed down." That is why pupils in selective school systems actually scored lower on the most recent PISA maths tests than those done in 2003.

Michael Gove was right to resist the clarion calls of the right and oppose opening new grammar schools and instead focus on lifting up standards for all pupils. Now the Conservatives have been seduced by the myth that grammars aid social mobility more disadvantaged children will be failed by Britain’s state schools. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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