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1 June 2022

Why the Tories love grammar schools

Grammar schools aren't just a bad idea – they're bad politics, too.

By Jonn Elledge

Was ever such a government so brimming with fresh ideas! Last night there was talk of bringing back Covid-era press conferences to talk about the economy (because being asked questions about what help ministers are providing every day at 5pm can’t possibly go wrong). On Friday, it’s reported, the Prime Minister will celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee by repealing the non-existent ban on imperial measurements.

And last Sunday we got the latest return of an old favourite: Downing Street is “open” to lifting the ban on new grammar schools, the Telegraph reported. Not, you note, that it is planning to do any such thing; it is merely open to it, just as you, dear reader, are no doubt “open” to the idea of Boris Johnson’s resignation and exile. Really, did you ever see such vigour?

It’s a terrible idea, obviously – terrible on multiple levels like that time during lockdown when someone in Downing Street uttered the immortal phrase, “Hey guys, shall we get the karaoke machine out?” For one thing, it’s terrible on a practical level in that, despite what their legion of fans believe, the data suggests that grammar schools make things worse. They do well by those who attend them, of course, but most kids don’t and the status quo, in which some areas retain grammars while most do not, has doubled as a helpful controlled experiment in what selective education does to overall results. The answer, it turns out, is “make them worse”: in aggregate, areas with selective education produce worse education outcomes than those with comprehensive education.

The exact reason for that undermines the case for grammar schools in a different way. Grammars are, we’re told, engines of social mobility which allow bright but disadvantaged children to climb up. But this doesn’t seem to be true: in selective Kent, richer kids do slightly better than their peers elsewhere, but poorer ones do substantially worse. This is probably because it’s overwhelmingly the richer kids who actually attend grammar schools. (More on this from Chris Cook, then at the BBC, here.)

So grammar schools are a bad policy, but reintroducing them would be terrible politics, too. That’s because, by definition, most families won’t actually get to send their kids to one. The reality of selective education is that almost everyone attends a secondary modern. (Politicians, you will note, rarely declare themselves in favour of bringing secondary moderns back.) More than that, a lot of kids would be scarred for life by being told they’re not good enough at the age of 11. This is, older readers may recall, a big reason why this system was mostly abolished in the first place.

So if grammar schools are such a bad idea why do Tories keep banging on about them? Partly because many who attended grammar school did quite well in life and ended up in a position to influence elite opinion. Partly because the era of selective education coincided with economic growth and social mobility, and it’s easy to mix up correlation and causation. Partly it’s because, like imperial measurements, grammars are a reminder of a time when the core Tory vote was young and still had hope. And partly just because they sound good: pushing grammar schools, after all, gives Tories a way of saying they want social mobility, while actually supporting its opposite. It’s really very on brand.

Despite years of stories about them being open to the idea of more grammar schools, successive governments have failed to allow them. After a while, one starts to wonder if this is deliberate. By talking about grammar schools a lot, after all, ministers get much of the benefit of being in favour of them but none of the disadvantages of actually introducing them. It is, in other words, cake-ism. That, too, is very on brand.

[See also: Did Tory MPs really vote to dump raw sewage in Britain’s rivers and seas?]

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