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Mary Ann Sieghart: How to change the shape of the establishment in one generation

Children at grammar schools learn faster, in an atmosphere in which excellence is treasured

Mary Ann Sieghart
Sunday 20 May 2012 22:31 BST

It's open season on private schools this month. Not from the left of the Labour Party, but from the most senior ministers in the government. First it was Michael Gove lamenting the widening divide between the private and state sectors. Tomorrow it will be Nick Clegg.

They have a point. It's no longer just politics and the professions that are disproportionately peopled by a public-school elite. These days, it's also the media, music, acting and sport. Gove calls this "morally indefensible". He claims that "more than almost any developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress".

He might have added "county" to "parentage". Because if you are bright but poor and you live in Kent, Essex, Buckinghamshire or Northern Ireland, your parentage doesn't have to dictate your progress. You have nearly the same chance of becoming a cabinet minister, a judge, a newspaper editor or a top rower as your privately educated neighbour. Why is that? Because these areas still have grammar schools, those turbo-chargers of social mobility.

Children at grammar schools learn at a faster pace, with more motivated peers, in an atmosphere in which academic excellence is treasured. This improves their results by up to three-quarters of a grade per GCSE subject, compared with children of the same ability in a comprehensive. It's particularly helpful for clever disadvantaged boys, who often find that the peer pressure in a mixed-ability school is to bunk off rather than work hard.

Clegg will point out tomorrow that Britain is almost unique in seeing educational inequality continue to increase between the ages of 11 and 18. This doesn't happen even in America. The reason is that better-off parents can and do buy their children a better secondary education: either by educating their children privately or by buying an expensive house near a good state school.

Of course, the few grammar schools that are left (164 in England and 68 in Northern Ireland) educate a lot of well-off children. But they also offer fantastic opportunities for bright pupils from poor backgrounds, an opportunity that is denied to pupils in Scotland, Wales and four-fifths of England.

The highest ratio of acceptances to applications at Cambridge is from Northern Ireland. It is also the only part of the country that never introduced the comprehensive system. Not coincidentally, perhaps, only 0.3 per cent of pupils there go to private schools, compared with 7 per cent in the whole of the UK. And grammars are popular: according to ICM, 76 per cent of people support the introduction of new ones. Only 17 per cent oppose them. Their opposition can usually be summed up in two words: "secondary" and "modern".

When selection was first introduced, the secondary moderns were the neglected repositories for the 11-plus failures. Their pupils then spent more time on cooking or metalwork than Latin and weren't expected to succeed. But a selective secondary school system doesn't have to be like that.

In Northern Ireland, the non-grammar schools do well, too – a few of them better than their selective rivals. Overall, the province easily outperforms England: 88.5 per cent of Northern Irish pupils get three A-levels, compared with 82 per cent of English ones.

If we moved to more selection, the grammar/secondary-modern divide needn't be nearly as stark as it used to be. The grammars could allow extra intakes at 12, 13 and in the sixth form, to allow for late developers. They could invite non-grammar pupils to come to classes in A-level subjects where there wasn't enough demand or teaching expertise at their own schools. Meanwhile all schools could be encouraged to specialise: grammars in traditional academia and non-grammars in technology, sport, languages, music, drama or art. In that way, children would be more likely to find a school that suited their talents, and there would be less stigma about failing the 11-plus.

For we have to make a choice about whether we care more about social immobility or about the feelings of 11-year-olds. Even now, 74,000 children fail to get into their first-choice secondary school and feel bad about it. Yet we don't have the corresponding benefit of a school structure that provides an escalator up the class system.

The prize is to change the shape of the establishment in one generation. Tomorrow Clegg will unveil a fascinating statistic: that pupils who had free school meals and went to Russell Group universities have exactly the same chance of landing a good professional or managerial job afterwards as students from a more privileged background. In other words, top-class higher education dissolves class differences.

So if we want to make this country much more meritocratic,we must ensure that the brightest children of any background go to the best universities. At the moment, according to the Sutton Trust, bright pupils even at the top comprehensives are half as likely as they should be to go to these universities, given their A-level results. The top grammar schools, by contrast, send exactly the expected proportion.

We could try to improve comprehensives' treatment of their most academic pupils, to raise teachers' aspirations and expectations. But we've been trying for a long time with limited success. There are still some schools where not a single pupil has ever applied to a Russell Group university. Even more shockingly, nearly half of state-school teachers admit they would never recommend their brightest pupils try for Oxbridge.

We have to get these children into an environment in which only the best is expected of them. A few of them win fully-funded places at independent schools, which gives them a booster rocket to the top. The least we could offer the rest is a free, academically selective education that allows them to achieve their full potential.

By failing to have the courage to promote this obvious route to greater social mobility, Clegg and Gove are like men bobbing for apples with their hands tied behind their backs. Of course they can't engage their teeth. The Education Secretary has so far allowed just one grammar school to set up a satellite. Yet he recently said that grammar schools were "a beacon for the entire state education system". Well, if that's the case, why can't we have many more of them?

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