With rates of social mobility stagnant, it’s time to admit we got it wrong on grammar schools

Anybody who believes the life chances of a child shouldn't be determined by their parents' bank balance must recognise the tragedy of our education system

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One of the first political epiphanies I had occurred when I was ten years old. I was sat on the carpet in my Grandmother’s house as a speech by Mother Teresa was broadcast on the evening news. “Let us promise”, the saintly patron of Calcutta’s Convents told Ireland, “that we will never allow in this country a single abortion. And no contraceptives.”

It would be a bit much to say I had it all figured out right there and then - I had to ask my embarrassed grandmother what con-tra-sep-tives were for a start - but I do remember a flicker of recognition flashing through my brain as the meaning behind the words became clearer: many of the bad things that are done in the world – many of the very worst things – are done by people who are convinced they are doing good.

When it comes to selection in schools, almost everyone in the political mainstream has accepted the wholesome idea that educational selection is bad. Equality is good but “elitism” is something approaching an abomination. If you understand that the debate over schools has been won by those with the best of intentions but not necessarily the best ideas, you are some way to comprehending the British school system.

No way back

Labour has been solidly against grammar schools since Harold Wilson’s government began phasing them out in 1964, but the Conservatives too have been content with the current system of comprehensives, with neither John Major nor Margaret Thatcher building more grammar schools while in office. In 2007 David Cameron reiterated his refusal to bow to calls to “bring back grammars”, and instead defined them as the “key test” of whether the Conservative Party was fit for office. He added that advocates of grammar school education were guilty of “clinging on to outdated mantras that bear no relation to the reality of life”.

Anti-grammar schools campaigner Fiona Miller (herself a former grammar school girl) summed up the attitude of those in favour of the current system when she wrote last year that “Selective education was largely abolished because middle-class parents were incensed at their children being labelled failures at 11 and forced into secondary moderns starved of the balanced intakes all schools need.”

There are two important assumptions in this sentence. The first is that school selection has been “largely abolished”. It has not. In fact the opposite holds true. The abolition of grammar schools has seen the despised “elitism” – or in other words, the recognition that some children are brighter than others – replaced with selection via the most ruthless commodity of all: cold hard cash. Access to most comprehensives today is “largely” decided by the ability of a child’s parents to pay the price of a house in a desirable catchment area. That is why premiums on houses in areas with good schools command an average price of £309,732 - 42 per cent higher than the average price of £218,114.

You do the maths.

Ms Miller is of course correct to say that many middle class parents were “incensed” by the grammar schools system. But then they were usually incensed because their children were losing out to bright working class kids. According to the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education, 66 per cent of parents wanted a grammar school education for their child, meaning many middle class parents were inevitably left disappointed when their child did not make the cut.

Were it the case that grammar schools had irreparably damaged social mobility there would be no point in having this debate. After all, the progressive ideal might just as well be defined as a state of affairs where the life chances of a child are not dictated by the bank balance of that child’s parents. That is, or at least that should be, the baseline for any social democrat or socialist worth their salt. Yet the abolition of grammar schools has had the opposite effect. The Franks Report on Oxford University, published in 1965-6, 21 years after grammar schools were opened to all according to ability, found that 40 per cent of places at Oxford went to pupils from state schools, compared to 19 per cent in 1938-9. Former President of Trinity College Michael Beloff claimed that by the early 1970s state schools supplied 70 per cent of the intake at Oxford.

Mediocrity or worse

Today 57 per cent of places on undergraduate courses at Oxford go to applicants from the state sector - including a disproportionately high number from the remaining grammar schools - and 42 per cent of places go to applicants from independent schools. And this is after universities have been told they risk being stripped of the right to charge higher fees if they fail to attract a wide mix of students.

The attempt by Labour education minister Tony Crosland to “destroy every fucking grammar school in England, Wales and Northern Ireland” was wrong not because his intentions were nefarious – the dissolution of grammar schools was supposed to do away with what Crosland called the “extreme social division caused by physical segregation into schools of widely divergent status” – but because the result has been a disaster for bright working class kids, who are crammed into classrooms with the disinterested, the idle and those who will simply always struggle with academic subjects. Rather than ushering in equality, comprehensives have resulted in mediocrity or worse for most children and a bonanza for wealthy families who despised the 11-plus but who can now buy their way into the best schools.

Under the Communist dictatorships of the 20th century, despite official ideology private enterprise flourished to an extent unheard of in the capitalist world. Similarly, under the UK’s comprehensive system selection is ruthlessly enforced in favour of anyone with enough cash and gumption to play the system. And like “actually existing socialism”, for many champions of comprehensives the abstract idea of equality is prized ahead of social justice. Or at least it appears that way. For what socialist would support a system where the children of the poor were condemned to bad schooling while the children of the rich were so privileged?

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