John Harris

Journalist & Author

Grammar schools do not aid social mobility. Stop this deluded thinking | John Harris

The figures show clearly that selective schools entrench inequality rather than help the poor. They should all be scrapped

What can we do about the seizing-up of social mobility, the yawning attainment gap between rich and poor, and all the other aspects of inequality about which politicians and commentators affect to fret? If you have never adequately understood the effects of post-Thatcher capitalism on inequality and always mistrusted the idea of comprehensive education, the answer is simple enough: rewind the clock to the 1940s, bring back selection at 11, and usher in a new age of exacting meritocracy.

Indeed, in certain parts of the country where children sit a version of the 11-plus and grammar schools have never gone away, little islands of wonder are allegedly thriving. Just listen to the former Independent columnist Mary Ann Sieghart, writing last year: “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.”

Unfortunately, this is rot. Last week the Sutton Trust educational charity released a report about who exactly goes to England’s 164 remaining grammar schools. Though the news was not exactly revelatory, the figures were still striking: 2.7% of their pupils are entitled to free school meals (FSMs) as against 17.5% in other state schools; 13% of entrants to English state–funded grammars come from fee-paying schools, more than double the proportion of 10-year-olds in private education; in areas that have stuck with selection, 66% of high-achievers at 11 who are not on FSMs get places at grammars; among those who are entitled to them, the figure is 40%.

It’s clear what is going on. Affluent parents pay for coaching; many go as far as putting their kids in prep schools, in the expectation they will fly through entrance exams for state grammars, and the money will have been well spent. The Sieghart utopia is a fantasy: in Kent, Buckinghamshire, Trafford, Lincolnshire and the rest, a bright child on FSMs is much less likely to make it to a grammar school (and, if the theory holds true, from there to the cabinet room, the inns of court or the Oxford University Boat Club) than more affluent classmates with the same levels of ability. Even in Northern Ireland, where a superficially creditable 7.4% of grammar school kids are on FSMs, that is still far lower than the 19% of all post-primary children entitled to them, and the 28% who take them in non-grammar schools.

Somewhat disappointingly, the Sutton Trust goes along with the idea that grammars are “here to stay”, and suggests improving outreach programmes, funding some pre-test coaching from the public purse, and suchlike. Inevitably its proposals have the look of lipstick on the proverbial pig – because in the context of such jaw-dropping statistics, the point seems incontestable: quite apart from the brutal stupidity of deciding someone’s life chances as they finish primary school, as proved by concerns that go all the way back to the 1950s, selection has always dovetailed with social segregation.

None of this, of course, will change the minds of the stubborn hardcore who claim that the return of the 11-plus would solve many of Britain’s problems at a stroke. Such great minds as Michael Portillo, the irksome Conservative MP Graham Brady and even some voices on the left bang on about grammar schools holding the key to some great revival of social mobility – but they’re guilty of a misreading of history that would be found out in any undergraduate sociology tutorial.

Post-1944, we are told, the grammar schools churned out thousands of elevated proletarians, and the economy just happened to have salaried jobs for them. In fact, that great spurt of embourgeoisement happened because of the expansion of white-collar employment and the public sector: the fact that some of the new middle class had waved goodbye to most of their classmates at 11 and gone to get O-level Latin was beside the point.

The intersection of selection and class goes to the heart of the malign elements of modern education policy more generally (which, in the case of grammars, has lately taken a turn for the worse: thanks to Michael Gove, though no new grammars can open, existing ones are now free to expand). Here the basic point is simple: in a society as unequal as ours, if you carve up schools into one group held up to be excellent, and another acknowledged to be not nearly as good, the wealthy will tend to stampede towards the former, while the less well-off get the scraps – and inequality will either be perpetuated, or made worse.

The intake of the Labour government’s academies contained fewer disadvantaged children than the schools they replaced. Now, the “converter” schools that have separated themselves from local authorities and become academies have been found to have far fewer pupils on FSMs than the national average. Last year it was revealed that three-quarters of free schools admitted a lower proportion of pupils on FSMs than registered in their surrounding areas: one, Canary Wharf College in east London, recorded 2% on FSMs as against a local figure of 48%.

Where such educational novelty has been held at bay, the picture is rather different. In fact, the author of a recent report submitted to the British Educational Research Association stated: “Segregation by poverty is highest in areas with fewest ‘bog standard’ schools and lowest in areas with few independent, selective, faith-based, foundation, city technology colleges or academy schools.”

In other words, if we really want to narrow the class-based attainment gaps that seem to keep politicians awake at night, we’ll have to reverse the entire policy direction of all three main parties. We should stick with orthodox comprehensives, phase out grammars, do the same to faith schools, and promote the good local school over supposed “choice”. And we should do everything in our power to pull parents away from fee-paying places, starting with an end to their charitable status, and an insistence that the intakes of all Russell Group universities should reflect the proportions of school students in state and private education – and, come to think of it, those who’ve been to comprehensives and grammars. Imagine that.

I’m not holding my breath, obviously. But, eventually, a principle so self-evident will have to be acknowledged, one way or another. If you overlay increasing differentiation on deep inequality, you end up with privilege: something I rather thought we’d grasped about two-thirds of the way into the last century.

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