If the Tories really cared about social mobility they wouldn't be opening a new grammar school

With the first selective school in 50 years, the Government will be actively encouraging inequality in our education system

Lucy Powell
Thursday 15 October 2015 20:20 BST
David Cameron and education secretary Nicky Morgan meet pupils during a visit to the Green School For Girls on March 9, 2015 in London
David Cameron and education secretary Nicky Morgan meet pupils during a visit to the Green School For Girls on March 9, 2015 in London (Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Have the Tories convinced you yet that they care about social justice? David Cameron said in his conference speech last week that we cannot accept that Britain has the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world. And Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, has said that the Conservatives are going to extend opportunity to every single child. These are statements that we can all agree with. There's a slight catch though – the Tories don't actually mean any of it.

As we’ve seen, it’s all too easy for politicians to churn out feel-good words. But unless it’s followed up with actions that back them up, the words are meaningless. And the Conservatives have just confirmed what we suspected all along: that they are not interested in tackling inequality in our schools system, or in raising standards for all children regardless of their background. Because after months of hand-wringing over the decision, the Government has approved the first new grammar school in 50 years.

For the Tories to suggest that this is anything but a new school is just patronising. The site is ten miles down the road from Weald of Kent, the grammar school it is being “annexed” to, in a completely different town, and 450 pupils will be attending it. To everyone involved, it will look and feel like a new school – and that's because it is.

The Prime Minister has evidently gone on a bit of a journey over selective education. He used to say that expanding grammar schools was “a pointless debate”, and that “parents fundamentally don't want their children divided into sheep and goats at the age of 11”. It's disappointing that he’s now completely changed his tune, because back then he was right. Cameron knows that grammar schools do not promote social mobility in our education system. Just three per cent of children selected for them are eligible for free school meals, even though 18 per cent of children in the local communities surrounding grammar schools fall into this category.

Research has shown that poor children do dramatically worse in areas where there are grammar schools. They're less likely to score highly at GCSE in areas. Those who aren't selected in these areas are being left behind in terms of results, but also pay in later life. The Institute of Education has found that there is a considerably bigger gap in wages between the highest and lowest paid workers in areas with a grammar schools system. International evidence also shows that selection early on is associated with lower performance, particularly from among disadvantaged children.

Nicky Morgan knows all this. Just a year ago she described herself as “resistant to selection”. She knows that the introduction of this new grammar school will lead to more inequality in our schools system. With many parents forced to fork out for private tuition in selective areas to get their children into grammar schools, she’s aware that it will lead to an increase in selection based on disposable income, rather than merit. Working families who cannot afford to play that game will be needlessly penalised.

The approval of this new school sets a worrying precedent. We already know of another application for a similar school on Nicky Morgan’s desk. This decision will open the floodgates.

It was only last week that Cameron acknowledged how bad social mobility is in the UK. But there’s a difference between words and deeds; this decision shows that he's actually quite comfortable with entrenching social division.

The Tories can repeat it all they like, but they will never be the party for working families. They will always continue to hark back to a bygone era of only allowing a tiny minority to join their elite.

Lucy Powell is Labour Co-op MP for Manchester Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education

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