Leader: Grammar schools and social mobility

Rather than reinstating grammar schools, focusing on early-years education would be a more productive way of undermining the stranglehold of the privately educated on British life.

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Nostalgia is ripe in British politics. It was evident in the vote to leave the European Union, as many saw it as a chance to reject modernity, globalisation and demographic change. It is evident, too, in the Conservative Party’s flirtation with reintroducing grammar schools, a policy that David Willetts, the former Tory MP and higher education minister, has described as “bring-backery”.

In many ways the desire to open new grammar schools is understandable. It reflects the correlation between poverty and educational failure, and exasperation at the continued domination of public life by those from private school, which the New Statesman has called the “Seven Per Cent Problem”. Research by the Sutton Trust has shown that the 7 per cent who go to private schools account for more than half of leading lawyers, medical professionals, journalists and actors. Even sport is not immune to the pre-eminence of the independently educated: 28 per cent of Team GB athletes at the Olympic Games in Rio went to private schools.

Any steps to erode the domination of public life by those from private schools should be welcomed. Yet the evidence suggests that grammar schools do not spread opportunity. In counties that maintain a selective system today, pupils from richer families usually do better – and those from poorer families usually do worse.

Part of the problem is the difficulty of designing a selection system that does not favour those with sharp-elbowed parents. The Sutton Trust has found that grammar-school pupils are four times more likely to have come from a private prep school than be on free school meals. Just 3 per cent of those at grammars receive free school meals, a sixth of the national average. Devising “tutor-proof” entrance exams has proved impossible. Surveys suggest that almost half of all those who take the eleven-plus have received some private tuition.

The notion that, in their postwar heyday, grammar schools ushered in an age of social mobility is a myth. The impression that society was becoming more meritocratic was caused by an unprecedented rise in numbers of middle-class jobs, creating “more room at the top”. The sociologist John H Goldthorpe has shown that relative social mobility – the chances for a working-class child to rise, against those for a middle-class child – has barely changed over the past century.

It is instructive that most of the countries that perform best in the Programme for International Student Assessment, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s
comparative testing of countries, do not select until late in education. Finland is the best-performing country in Europe: it does not separate pupils by ability until the age of 16. The OECD has also found that pupils are often less motivated in more selective systems. As Amanda Ripley notes in her influential book The Smartest Kids in the World, “There seemed to be some kind of ghetto effect: once kids were labelled and segregated into the lower track, their learning slowed down.”

Rather than reinstating grammar schools, focusing on early-years education would be a more productive way of undermining the stranglehold of the privately educated on British life. Currently, by the age of five, there is a 19-month gap in school readiness between the most and the least disadvantaged children. As long as this scandalous gulf remains, no amount of tinkering with secondary education will increase social mobility.

The government needs to recognise this through greater investment in nursery and primary schools and by increasing the number of hours of education that children enjoy in their early years. We must stop treating primary education as less important than
secondary education: apart from Estonia, the UK is the only one, out of 30 countries surveyed by the OECD, in which class sizes at primary school are greater than those at secondary-school level.

Any government focused on increasing social mobility, as Theresa May says she is, must give priority to increasing the opportunities for disadvantaged children in their very first years of life. That might not have the same nostalgic appeal as bringing back grammar schools, but it would be more effective in helping all children achieve their full potential. 

This article appears in the 11 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq