Grammar Schools Fail the Poorest. Nostalgia is the Only Reason to Bring Them Back.

As they say, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck it probably is a duck. I am all for nuance in public policy but Nicky Morgan’s new grammar school “extension” is no such thing: a new site, nine miles away from the main school, with space for 450 pupils it is a new school. Quack. Quack.

At the weekend Nick Timothy, the head of the New Schools Network, said that admission based on ability, banned by Labour in 1998, should be re-allowed for secondary schools. This is a debate which will run and run. Academic selection is back.

That after ten years as leader, and five in government, there is still a desire by many on the right for a return to academically selective education demonstrates the patchy (some would say non-existent) nature of David Cameron’s modernisation project. In 2007, under pressure from a surging and prime ministerial Gordon Brown, he sacked his then education spokesman, the thoughtful David Willetts whose crime was to say that academic selection does not promote social mobility. Cameron was then unwilling to take on malcontents. He is at the peak of his authority, but still seems reluctant. By replacing Gove with Morgan in 2014 he replaced a credible figure, who for all his massive faults always had meritocratic passion and often for evidence-based policy, with one who cannot confront the unreconstructed wing of the Conservative party. It is, I am sure, a coincidence that the announcement was near-simultaneous with her expression of interest in ascending the top of the Tory greasy pole.

Her decision shows exactly why she would be the wrong choice.

Academically selective education by its very nature fails the majority. In the days of secondary moderns it consigned a majority of pupils to a second-class education. Even at their peak grammars only took a quarter of all state-educated pupils. Now it is easy for better off parents to ease their children into a grammar school place in a way which disadvantaged parents cannot. The UK has 164 grammar schools, with 164,000 pupils; they are much less likely to have special educational needs or be eligible for free school meals: 161 grammar schools have fewer than 10% of pupils eligible for free school meals; 98 of those have fewer than 3%, and 21 have fewer than 1%. The national average is 15%.  A 2008 Department of Education study showed that even allowing for local differences free school meal rates at grammars were not representative. The proportion of pupils from the lowest poverty quartile was 8%, compared to 20% in local areas. Those from the least deprived quartile were over-represented. The Sutton Trust has concluded that grammar schools select half as many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds as they could, the pupils are more likely to be white with the non-white students largely coming from Asian and Chinese backgrounds. Grammar schools undeniably fail black youth. I could go on.

an adherence to totemic policies is not a sign of IDEOLOGIcal purity, it is a sign of creative bankruptcyThe myth of grammar schools is one that holds an enduring fascination for many on the right. It is understandable that those who benefited from such an education are loath to let go, but emotional spasm is not a substitute for intellectual rigour: whether it be on the left or the right, an adherence to totemic policies is not a sign of ideological purity, it is a sign of creative bankruptcy. It is the political equivalent to a canine’s obsession with its genitalia.

Parental background is still too great an influence on academic attainment, an area where the UK is 9th of OECD’s 34 countries, lagging behind nations such as Sweden, Australia and Canada. There are some league tables you do not want to top. The educational scene is a mess: private schools discriminate on the basis of parental wealth, a third of state-funded schools are racially divisive faith schools. Grammar schools add to that unfairness. It seems we can have as much discrimination in education as we are willing to tolerate. Parent choice is a genie that has slipped the confines of its lamp and policy must reflect the world as it is; but we need an educational framework that allows the brightest and those with the most potential to succeed and gives everyone a fair shot at all stages. A ban may be ‘arbitrary’, according to Nick Timothy, but so is eleven an arbitrary age for academic selection.

Rather like the work of independent schools to justify their spurious charitable status, grammar schools could do more outreach to improve the chances of those whom they currently ignore. Or we could do something far simpler, and accept that a belief in social mobility and grammar schools is incompatible. Grammar schools never have promoted social mobility. They are not promoting social mobility. And they never will.

Words matter. Yet, while fine conference speeches about equality are all very well, finer policy decisions are more important. If the Cabinet minister responsible for education wants to duck this fight, then the prime minister cannot. It is time for him to be the modernising leader he purports to be and tell his party that this duck won’t fly.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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