Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The grammar vacuum

Aristotle famously said that nature abhors a vacuum. He was half right in the sense that, given a chance, denser material will rush in to fill the void. But as we now know, large parts of the universe do manage to persist in a state of emptiness. It is counterintuitive to think about space persisting with nothing occupying it. But it happens.

Two voids have recently opened up in British politics. The first occurred on 24 June this year when David Cameron resigned. The vacuum this created instantly began sucking in denser material from the rest of the Conservative party. The forces created were so large that several of the biggest lumps collided and destroyed each other en route. But nature took its course and Theresa May soon found herself standing on the same spot which Cameron had vacated, pledging to do everything in her power to give struggling, working-class families more control over their lives.

Brexit policy remains an empty void. But with May did come some policy material. Indeed, it is some of the densest stuff in the public policy universe and it is hurtling towards school children with terrifying force: grammar schools.

The case against them is overwhelming. Here is a boiled-down version of what we know (all articles are free to access for people who want to look into them further). Schooling systems that select based on academic ability increase segregation between rich and poor kids mainly because rich kids are already ahead age 11 but also because bright poor kids are much less likely to get into grammars than equally bright rich kids. This segregation amplifies gaps in educational attainment between rich and poor kids which has the effect of increasing earnings inequality in adult life. Now somebody on the political right might dismiss all this as leftie handwringing. But the research shows that, as well as increasing segregation, attainment gaps and earnings inequality, selective schooling actually decreases social mobility. In a remarkable social experiment, Finland gradually abolished selective schooling in the 1970s and the research shows that the link between parents’ income and child income reduced by a quarter as a result. Grammar schools will likely not even succeed on May’s own terms.

The case in favour of grammar schools by contrast is based on cherry-picked anecdote. Loic Menzies has labelled it the Uncle Steve Argument. We have likely all heard it at some point: ‘Uncle Steve came from a really tough background and it’s thanks to grammar school that he made something of himself.’ Isolated anecdotes like this have a disproportionately powerful influence on our thinking. But they are just that – anecdotal. We will never know what would have happened to Steve if he went to another school. He would have had the same family income, parents, genes and local labour market even if he had not gone to grammar school. He could have done just as well without grammar school; we simply do not know. Even if we assume that Uncle Steve benefitted, the hard research suggests he is unusual in that few poor kids get into grammars to begin with and his leg-up came at the cost of an overall, society-wide reduction in social mobility due to selective schooling.

At this point I need to apologise because this is not really a blog about grammar schools at all. If it was I would be wasting my time by preaching to the converted of Progress. But the grammar debate is important because it brings us to the second big vacuum in British politics. Unlike the Conservative ideas vacuum, this one has not been filled. Indeed it has now been empty for some time.

Given that grammars are such an awful idea, why is there no institution purposefully prosecuting the (evidence-based) arguments against their reintroduction? There are plenty of people who oppose them (including former Conservative ministers and possibly even the secretary of state for education). Plenty of people have written anti-grammar school blogs making similar arguments to those made above. But who is dedicating the next few months to meeting with headteachers’ groups, parents’ groups, sympathetic members of parliament on all sides and anyone else who will listen in order to keep the case against grammars in the headlines and fresh in the public mind? Who is engaging in sustained campaigning in order to move the dial of public opinion and ramp up political pressure on May and her circle? The answer, if we are honest, is nobody. This is the second vacuum in British politics.

Previously it may have been filled by Labour MPs. But sadly the public has lost trust in politicians and their ability to shift public opinion has been impaired as a result. Jeremy Corbyn abdicated the ability to influence the British public long ago. In any case, polling suggests there may not be many Labour MPs left after the 2020 general election – what then? Ben Lyons recently wrote a brilliant piece for the New Statesman explaining how the American right (and subsequently the American left) have developed institutions outside of their parties which are capable of sustained campaigning in order to shift public opinion and create the conditions for election victory. This is precisely what we need in order to successfully propagate and amplify the argument against grammars. If we cannot manage this with such a clear-cut case, we will never manage to win more contentious arguments, such as around immigration.

Nature abhors a vacuum but they can persist indefinitely. It is our responsibility to fill them with good policy, before they get crammed with rubbish. Lyons’ proposal would be a great place to start.


Sam Sims is a PhD researcher at UCL Institute of Education. He tweets @Sam_Sims_


Picture: Sky News

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Sam Sims

is a PhD researcher at UCL Institute of Education


  • Sam, no-one campaigning on this? Really? Actually, there is a gaggle of organisations trying to make the case, not least Comprehensive Future, Campaign for State Education Socialist Educational Association These and others combine in the Reclaiming Education Alliance and all work with sympathetic MPs and others.
    Do they have difficulty getting their message across? Of course, but that’s a media studies question. Why don’t you join in?

  • A very good article but unfortunately tried to turn into just another anti – Corbyn Story.

    The large numbers of new ‘recruits’ would indeed add to the ‘fellow traveller’ approach to political party popular opposition – a well established political format used by continental socialist parties, e.g. the massive French and Italian Communist Parties of the past.

    I liked the suggestion, perhaps the author could recommend it to Momentum and a means to advancing Labour’s position in the next stage of its development.

  • In think that Angela Rayner, as Labour’s lead on education, is doing a pretty good job of pointing out the follies of the grammar school proposals.
    Labour can also point to an example of how someone of moderate abilities from an affluent background can get into a grammar school via the route of private primary education.

Sign up to our daily roundup email