Five reasons grammar schools are a terrible idea
—Theresa May’s decision to announce the expansion of English grammar schools as a radical approach to improving social mobility has been roundly criticised, not least by former Conservative education secretaries and prominent Tory members of parliament. When David Cameron became leader of the Conservative party, he sought to bury the issue of whether grammars should be allowed to expand, which had dogged the party throughout the previous decade. He understood that promoting grammar schools defeated the project of Tory party modernisation, and created major political problems for the Conservatives. The leadership’s decision to push forward with grammar schools in 2016 runs the risk that the Tories are still seen as the party of the privileged few. The government’s flagship education policy could turn out to be the greatest policy blunder since the poll tax.
The first problem is the basic arithmetic: grammar schools are built on the idea that only a minority of children are suitable for high-level academic education. The majority will go to schools that offer only technical and vocational learning opportunities; whatever the government’s claims about ‘equal status’ between educational pathways, the reality is that the majority will be labelled ‘failures’ at the age of 11 or 14. That is not great politics to say the least. And it is exactly why the Conservatives chose not to reverse the comprehensive revolution instigated by Anthony Crosland in the 1960s following the election of the Heath government in 1970: as education secretary, Margaret Thatcher oversaw the closure of more grammar schools than any other minister, for the simple reason that comprehensive schools were increasingly popular with the middle class.
Second, in most areas comprehensive schools have been relatively successful since the 1960s in providing high-quality educational outcomes for children across the class distribution. A report by Vikki Boliver and Adam Swift published in 2011 found that, ‘comprehensive schools were as good for mobility as the selective schools they replaced’. Grammar schools did not make it more likely that working-class children would ‘escape’ their class origins.
Third, the polling evidence indicates that parents do not necessarily want more grammar schools. While the majority of voters have expressed support for grammar schools in recent surveys, parents change their minds when they become aware of the alternatives on offer, should their children not be selected for the best schools.
Fourth, expanding grammar schools will almost certainly lead to the growth of private education, defeating the object of an initiative to increase social mobility. Middle-class parents whose children do not win places at grammar school will be increasingly tempted to ‘opt out’ into the independent sector. That will have the opposite effect from that apparently intended, widening the social and educational divide in England.
Fifth, grammar schools are the wrong policy for economies where success for an individual or a country is increasingly dependent on our ability to spread human capital widely. Grammar schools were the product of postwar British society where the majority were employed in manual occupations: they were envisaged as a meritocratic ‘sorting mechanism’ where individuals could be selected for relatively few positions in the managerial and professional elite. That mindset is an anachronism in today’s society: there is no limit on the number of highly skilled jobs that the economy can create, as underlined by the growing graduate wage premium since the 1990s.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development surveys education systems across 24 industrialised economies, and concludes that a nation’s success is based on the ability of its education system to combine equity with quality. This approach centred on innovation and transformation within all schools rather than a return to selection has forged a constructive education policy consensus in the United Kingdom for the last 20 years. Grammar schools are a distraction from that vital task of fusing excellence with equality.
Patrick Diamond is university lecturer in public policy, Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of The Crosland Legacy: The Future of British Social Democracy
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