School’s Out

Grammar schools don’t make better schools.

Theresa May’s ascension to the highest office in the land has gotten many optimistic that new grammar schools are just on the horizon. Ms May, after all, backed plans to expand the grammar school within her own constituency, and supported parents having more choice of academically selective schools.

The debate surrounding the existence and expansion of grammar schools has been a hallmark of Education Secretaries since the 1960s, despite moves by governments to close these institutions. Lady Thatcher oversaw more grammar school closures than Labour’s Tony Crosland. Tony Blair’s best attempts to draw a line under the issue in 1998, with a compromise of allowing the maintenance of existing grammar schools but preventing the creation of new ones, has done little to silence the debate surrounding their reintroduction; a debate made all the more pressing by a grammar school in Tonbridge, Kent opening up an annexe ten miles away in October 2015. Many current grammar school are already expanding their intakes, and the decision at Tonbridge may encourage other satellites by existing grammar schools. The move may be a popular one. 51% of British adults support the idea of allowing new grammar schools to open, according to polling company ComRes.

The arguments for and against grammar schools haven’t shifted much, even though tectonic shifts in the education system have occurred since 2010. Primarily, the rise of academies, which keep the state at arms length and grant autonomy over curriculums and admissions, and multi-academy trusts allow well performing schools to take over poorly performing schools (such as Birmingham’s King Edward’s VI, which took over Sheldon Heath Community Arts College). This quasi-market system with a focus on standards have built a system where when standards are low people intervene, and when standards are high schools expand in what is, quite literally, a tick-box exercise.

The new systems in place mean the debate about grammar schools are out of step with the current schooling reality. Research by the Sutton Trust, a think-tank, found that some of the most socially selective schools are comprehensives. The same research also found that grammar schools aren’t enrolling anywhere near the number of academic children from poor backgrounds that they could. But with greater control by academies over admissions, they could (in theory) expand their selection criteria to include more children from poor homes.

Whether they will is another story. Only a handful of poor children attend grammar schools, even with claims that grammar schools enhance social mobility. This imbalance doesn’t go away when the more affluent areas grammar schools are found in is corrected for. According to the University of Bristol, selective schools still choose more by where children are from rather than how good they actually are. Another study, by UCL’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies, found children from poor families lag behind richer ones early in education. Because of this, the actual benefits of attending grammar schools, and their ability to boost social mobility, is relatively small

Worse still, evidence from the University of London’s Institute of Education, looking at wage data in areas with selective schools, found selective schools benefit those at the top at the expense of those at the bottom. In other words, regions with selective education pushed earnings for those at the bottom of the ladder down, while pushing the earning for those at the top of the ladder up. This shows another, often not discussed side to the grammar school debate. Those who don’t make it to grammar school do worse than if they grew up in an area with a bog standard comprehensive. The selection process itself, known as the 11+ test, is terribly flawed. Little, if any, data exists to suggest how well a child does in their 11+ is a good indicator of how well they do in school; or in their GCSEs and A levels for that matter. And it often leaves children who failed the test with a tarnished love of education, and lower future expectations. Grammar schools only help a few poor children. The rest are left behind.

Poorer children aren’t less capable than their richer friends. According to the OECD, a group of rich countries, 70% of poor kids in Japan and South Korea do better than predicted. In the UK, it’s less than a quarter. Most kids from working class homes often feel their teachers look down on them or are made to feel dumb. Too often poorer children are viewed as inadequate learners; or are viewed as lacking the pedigree to go as far as their rich chums. Bright children from poor backgrounds are less likely to apply to the top universities than their upper class counterparts. Most efforts to expand access to higher education have benefited middle class homes, not working class ones. 

This is a tragedy. Data consistently shows that while private school children have double the chance of getting into a Russell Group University, the leading universities in the UK, once there, state educated children usually outperform their privately educated chums. And yet, too often a lucky few who happened to be born rich, are groomed for certain universities, school places, and top jobs. Those left in the hands of the state find it harder to reach the top. A 2007 list of the top 500 leading individuals by the Sutton Trust found over half went to independent public schools, despite those making up just 7% of school-aged children.

Moves to bring back Grammar schools won’t address this imbalance. In Nordic nations, the move towards all-ability comprehensive schools reduced the influence of family wealth on how well a child did in school. OECD data confirms this: comprehensive schools narrow differences in achievement due to social class. If Ms May truly wants all young people to thrive, she should level the playing fields

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