Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system

Where selection remains, it continues to be largely the preserve of the privileged


The chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, could not have been more damning. Grammar schools are “stuffed full of middle-class kids,” he says. Though they “might do well with 10 per cent of the school population,” he argues, “everyone else does really badly.” Refreshing: we normally only hear from those who want to bring back secondary moderns. It’s time to push back, and call for the remaining 164 grammar schools to finally be scrapped.

There’s a good reason why the pro-secondary modern brigade are so loud, with the exception of the two-person campaigning machine of Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar. According to the Sutton Trust, most top journalists are privately educated – for the general population it’s just 7 per cent – so our media is hardly fertile ground to champion the benefits of comprehensive education. “Aha!”, the secondary modernists respond. “That in itself illustrates the failure of the comps!” It actually says more about the fact that if you have parents rich enough to send you to a fee-paying school, they’ll be rich enough to pay you through the media’s proliferating unpaid internships, as well as the costly post-graduate journalism courses that are becoming all but compulsory to so many wanting to enter the media world. Here is a wider debate about Britain’s rigged society that the secondary modern lobbyists are not interested in.

The debate is also skewed because so few of those written off by secondary moderns made it into the political or media elite. So let us stick to the facts. Grammar schools have never worked. Back in the late 1950s, the government commissioned the Crowther Report into the state of Britain’s education system. They found that boys from semi-skilled or skilled family backgrounds were “much under-represented in the composition of selective schools”, but “over-represented” in the secondary moderns. Most of the “sons of professional people” went to grammars, but only a minority of manual workers’ children did so. As a 2011 British Journal of Sociology study put it, “any assistance to low-origin children provided by grammar schools is cancelled out by the hindrance of secondary moderns”.

What about the minority of working-class children who did make it to grammars? Generally speaking, they did badly. According to a 1954 government report, out of 16,000 grammar school pupils from semi-skilled or unskilled families, around 9,000 failed to get three passes at O-level. Just one in 20 were awarded two A-levels. And there’s a reason for this: it is broader social inequalities that fuel educational inequalities, not school structures.

Peter Hitchens is a passionate defender of selection, arguing that political parties have been “captured by Gramscian revolutionary thought some years ago”. One of his key arguments is that “the grammars and direct grants stormed Oxford (and Cambridge) in the 1950s and 1960s”. This in itself is an odd conflation, given most of the students at direct grant grammar schools were fee-paying. Back in 1964, 37 per cent of all Oxbridge students were state-educated; last year, 63.3 per cent of Cambridge hailed from a state school. As ever, the numbers of working-class students at Oxford and Cambridge – and other top universities, some of whom are even less socially representative – is unacceptably low. That’s why they should be forced to automatically enrol the brightest working-class students, recognising the fact we start from different places.

Where selection remains today, it continues to be largely the preserve of the privileged. Just 3 per cent of grammar school pupils are on free school meals, compared to 17.5 per cent at other schools. They are a whopping four times more likely to admit privately educated children than those on free school meals. Hitchens claims that’s because, with so few selective areas, pushy middle-class types are bound to dominate. But grammar schools’ unrepresentative make-up is consistent with how they have always been, and hardly explains why, as one study recently found, “poor children do dramatically worse in selective areas”, with poor children far less likely to do well at GCSEs in areas like Kent than non-selective areas. In selective areas, the privileged often pay for private tuition to get their kids to pass the grammar school test, which is exactly what they would do everywhere if selection was rolled out nationally again.

And then there’s Northern Ireland, also stuck in the selective age, again championed by Hitchens as a success. That’s odd, because according to the recent Pisa international rankings on maths, reading and science, the Six Counties do worse than both Scotland and England.

The real issue is social inequality. By the age of five, children from the poorest backgrounds have a vocabulary up to 18 months behind those from the richest backgrounds; no wonder selection a few years later purges so many. That’s why we need far more resources at an earlier age, with more investment in Sure Start and nurseries. Diet, housing, the stresses of poverty: here are far bigger factors, and the reason middle-class pupils tend to do well wherever they are sent. So let’s focus on inequality and good schools for all, and finally rid ourselves of the bewildering anachronism of selection.

For more Owen Jones this week, go here:

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