In the middle part of the twentieth century the grammar school was, par excellence, an effective engine of social mobility. Providing a quality of education that was at the very least equal to that provided by the private sector, the grammar schools provided for an elite minority of state educated children an opportunity to go to university that had been effectively denied to those who failed the eleven plus. Tonly Crosland's effective abolition of the grammar school was disastrous for the cause of social mobility.
So, why have the Conservatives announced
that they no longer have plans to re-introduce them? David Willetts, in a long and thoughtful speech
to the CBI lays out the primary reason.
Many people, genuinely worried about social mobility, believe that grammar schools can transform the opportunities of bright children from poor areas. For those children from modest backgrounds who do get to grammar schools the benefits are enormous. And we will not get rid of those grammar schools that remain. But the trouble is that the chances of a child from a poor background getting to a grammar school in those parts of the country where they do survive are shockingly low. Just 2% of children at grammar schools are on free school meals when those low income children make up 12% of the school population in their areas.
In other words, if it is social mobility that is your concern grammar schools are inefficient at providing it. It is better to work to improve the schools that we have, and to improve the standards and methods of teaching within them than to re-introduce academic selection. The implementation of comprehensive schools has been poor, to say the least, but there is still validity in the rationale for them. If you divide children at 11 into the bright and the thick, two things are inevitable. The first is that the quality of the 'bright' schools will be much higher, both in terms of facilities and funding. The second is that these schools will eventually be 'captured' by the middle classes.
Willetts's point that low-income children make up only 2% of grammar school intakes is a reflection of that. Paying for a tutor, or for specialist exam coaching, is still cheaper than forking out for school fees: it's a good deal for the parent. But that sort of advantage is not available to poor parents. In this light, grammar schools are essentially a subsidy to rich parents. Does this matter? Even if most of the grammar school intake is made up of bright middle class kids - so what? Middle class kids are people too - if they're bright enough shouldn't they get the chance to go to the best schools?
That's absolutely right, but it's not really what Willetts is addressing. His argument is that, esssentially, there is in existence a class-based admissions policy. The best schools are those with the fewest poor kids, and the rich kids go to the best schools. Chicken; egg. Creating a new tier of better funded best schools is unlikely to change this. What was an engine of social mobility in the 1960s has turned into an engine of social rigidity.
It is a mantra of the Cameronite Conservatives that policies should be examined for how they impact on the least well-off; the least able to opt out of state provision. Grammar schools are to a very great degree for 'us'; for Cameron's totem. A move to re-introduce grammar schools, to re-stratify the education system into the academic haves and have-nots, would play very well with Conservative voters and potential Conservative voters. I don't believe that it would address the problem of social stagnation.
What we have at the moment is selection by parental income. What the re-introduction of grammar schools would do is blur the edges of that slightly. What Willetts is proposing is something different:
At the heart of our education reforms is creating, in Tony Blair's words, 'self-governing independent state schools'. This involves a lot of painstaking work getting rid of the barriers that stand in the way of much greater and more diverse provision of schools in this country. It means making it easier for successful schools to take over failing schools. It means making it much easier to create new schools including by parents groups themselves if they wish. It means making it easier for new providers of education to enter the maintained sector without facing barriers to entry. It particularly means applying these initiatives to the parts of the country which suffer the most from the blocked opportunities and life chances of a low mobility society.
It may be a rejection of the grammar-school system, but I think it is also an attempt to improve the standard of education across the board - not merely for 'people like us'.
Labels: education, Tories