The Tories keep bottling their push for more grammar schools. Is it because they know they don’t work? | Lola Okolosie


Five years into the government’s drive to make grammar schools more inclusive, the results are mixed at best. An investigation by the BBC revealed that a quarter of England’s 160 grammar schools remain woefully behind in offering places to disadvantaged children – who still make up less than 5% of the student body. Fewer still will have a special educational need.

But any push for inclusivity, well meaning as it may seem, is still based on a mistaken assumption: that grammars are intrinsically better than comprehensives; that they are bastions of old-world excellence that get the very best out of their students. Ever since Labour banned the creation of new grammar schools in 1998, those on the right have argued that grammars are the silver bullet with which that pernicious demon, lack of social mobility, can be vanquished.

That grammars are able to cream off the top students and then boast about excellence seems an exercise akin to saying water is wet. Of course they achieve good results, jam-packed as they are with the most able students from privileged backgrounds. But what about the fact that those grammar school pupils will achieve, on average, only a third of a grade higher across their eight GCSE subjects than their counterparts in comprehensives? Grammars may do (very marginally) better for the students who attend them, but it is convenient, or disingenuous, to ignore their detrimental impact on their non-selective neighbours.

Prof Lindsey Macmillan at University College London, reviewing the evidence gathered by the BBC, spoke plainly. It was, she said, “very, very clear” that children living in grammar school areas such as Kent who do not gain entrance to selective schools go on to have fewer opportunities in life. “They’re less likely to go to university, they’re less likely to earn as much as adults.” Macmillan, an expert in the impact education has on life chances, added: “Grammar schools increase inequality – compared to comprehensive areas that look very similar in other ways.”

Supporters of grammars credit them with the uptick in social mobility after the second world war. This myth has also been debunked, by academics writing during the period and by those today who can find no “support for the contention that the selective schooling system increased social mobility in England”, either in absolute or relative terms.

Time and again, it has been proved that access to a grammar is as much dependent on parental affluence as it is on intellect. Simply put, they are unfair. Research by University College London’s Social Research Institute found that children whose family are ranked in the top 10% socioeconomic status are 50% more likely to gain entry into a grammar.

Yet despite all this, and the ban on new grammar schools, they continue to grow – places have increased by 19% since 2010. Tory government after Tory government takes up the issue, with its convenient implication that Labour policy is holding back our cleverest young people. In 2016, Theresa May announced she would end the ban on new grammars. Her divisive proposal was scrapped months later. And there it was again last autumn in the brief premiership of Liz Truss, who described herself as a “big fan” of grammar schools. She too planned to lift the ban. And that too was abandoned. Could it be that even the Tories recognise the political and social dangers of reversing the ban? Whatever the answer, what’s clear is that in all this flip-flopping and endless debate, children and their families lose out.

Across England and Wales, 1 March was circled in many a family calendar: national offer day, the momentous date when secondary school places are offered. The spectre of the “sink school”, foremost in parental nightmares, charges national offer day, and indeed the debate on grammars, with emotion. Like the ghosts that visit Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it seemingly points an accusatory finger at parents. Could they have done more to secure for their child what the American philosopher Joel Feinberg called the “right to an open future”?

Primed for self-flagellation, parents can’t help but feel embittered by a system that pits their “choice” against those of wealthier peers who fork out thousands in tuition or private school fees to prepare their children for the 11-plus. Driving all these seemingly disparate groups of parents is the desire to do their very best where their children are concerned. The only difference is that in grammar school areas, one set will be able to afford it while the other cannot.

Communities are, by their nature, predisposed to uniformity. But comprehensives, with their broad spectrum of backgrounds and ability, show that community can consist of those who look, talk and act differently to us. They ask that pupils cohere in spite of their differences, and thereby live out the values of tolerance and mutual respect. Cynics might see this as naive idealism but, whether they are in Yorkshire or the capital, this is why I remain committed to always teaching within the comprehensive system.

The obsession with grammars, which only educate 5% of the pupil population, misses what is staring us right in the face: our focus should be trained on providing a high quality education to the vast majority who do not attend them. In comprehensives we can and do have excellent teaching and outcomes – but we also offer something else: the opportunity for children to know a little of how life is lived by those whose backgrounds are different from their own.



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