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Grammars rule — for the few

08 June 2018

Grammar schools are in the news again, touted as agents of social mobility. Dennis Richards examines the claim


Townley Grammar School in Bexley, featured in the current BBC series Grammar Schools: Who will get in?

Townley Grammar School in Bexley, featured in the current BBC series Grammar Schools: Who will get in?

AFTER nearly 50 years in education, I am well used to the pendulum theory of education: in other words, what goes around comes around. Happily, some features of past educational practice will not return: corporal punishment, for example, or — and this is a brave prediction — the O-level and CSE divide.

But, with the announcement that the Government has set aside £50 million to create new places in existing grammar schools, the policy of academic selection at the age of 11 has come under scrutiny yet again (News, 13 April 2017).

You have to wonder why, given the shortage of money in the system as a whole. Shouldn’t we rather be focusing our attention on the issue of mental health in our schools? The early word from the examination halls this year suggests signs of an abnormal level of stress.

In fairness to the Government, we had already been warned. Despite the Labour Government’s 1998 ban on new selective grammar schools, Theresa May set out proposals for a new generation of grammar schools in 2016. There was also the £19-million “annexe” to a grammar school in Tonbridge. Let us just say that, given that it is located in Sevenoaks, ten miles from Tonbridge, it was, at the very least, a generous interpretation of the term “annexe”.

There is good reason to keep a sense of perspective, but at the same time to be open to new thinking. Perspective is required, simply because there are only 163 grammar schools in the whole country, and 32 of them are in Kent (or perhaps 33, now). Lincolnshire and Birmingham account for another large chunk of them.

Second, £50 million, which is barely 0.1 per cent of the education budget, would build only two-and-half new “annexes” at Sevenoaks prices. So, no wholescale return to the 11-plus is currently on the agenda, or even foreseeable any time soon.

Devotees of comprehensive education should, however, recognise that there is a whole new dynamic to this debate. In short: social mobility. This is no longer a debate about academic superiority.

Research regularly shows that the top 20 per cent do equally well whether they are in a grammar school or a high-flying comprehensive. But, crucially, grammar schools do not take into account where children live. Today, that looks radical. Why? Because in the comprehensive system there is a vast gulf between schools.

Admission to the best of them is decided by proximity to the school — literally, measured by a tape measure — which inevitably puts a premium on house prices in those areas. Prioritising school places on this system has had the effect of concentrating the children from the poorest areas in the worst-performing schools.

Indeed, in the autumn of 2015, research conducted by the University of Bristol’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation, Cambridge University, and the Institute of Fiscal Studies showed that basing admissions on closeness to the school was “one of the biggest drivers of inequality between rich and poor families”. It is the “elephant in the room” of comprehensive-school organisation.

WE HAVE not yet mentioned faith schools; so maybe now is the moment to do so. Before Lord Dearing’s report The Way Ahead, in 2001, Church of England schools would have had serious questions to answer about social integration. With the advent of academies, the Church of England has seized the opportunities to make its schools more diverse, even stepping into situations that other providers have crossed the road to avoid. As a result, there has been a marked change nationally in the socio-economic character of church schools and their academy partners.

At the same time, both the Anglican and Roman Catholic sectors have retained a reputation for a specific “caring” kind of ethos, in respect of children with special educational needs, including learning difficulties. I suspect, therefore, that it would be unthinkable for either sector to consider reintroducing any form of academic selection.

PERHAPS there was once an era when grammar schools did make a difference. From Harold Wilson through to John Major there was clear rise of a meritocracy. The image of grammar-school students was very different from their privately educated counterparts. Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is a brilliant capturing of these clever, iconoclastic youngsters making their way in the world.

Michael Howard may be best known for refusing to answer a question from Jeremy Paxman 14 times; but he is also remembered for a withering riposte to Tony Blair in a debate about access to higher education: “This grammar-school boy will not take lessons from a public-schoolboy.”

Sadly, there was a dreadful downside to grammar schools, which, in the end, led to their demise. I went to a grammar school in that era. My primary-school friends did not. I lost touch with them for ever. They went to a secondary modern school, and it marked them for life.

Not surprisingly, there has never been an equivalent clamour to bring back secondary modern schools. Yet whenever a grammar school exists, cheek by jowl, with another school, the other school is in effect a secondary modern, whatever fancy title they may dream up. If it looks like a duck. . .

The technical-education debate is a red herring. It runs the risk of recreating the awful flaw in the 1944 Act, which imagined that children can be neatly categorised into three categories: academic, technical, and manual. Life is not that simple. And to suggest it when children are 11? You must be joking.

THE debate is ongoing. The Government has made it clear that any new “annexe” proposals will have to demonstrate how they can enhance social mobility. This, in turn, will lead to another debate about lowering standards to accommodate children from socially deprived areas.

Yes, comprehensive schools must address the question of social mobility. But, if a newly created grammar-school annexe can pull off the social-mobility trick without damaging other schools, then I will make the Lord Ashdown offer and eat my hat.

What is certain is that the 11-plus exam will not return on any wide scale. New parents may quite like the idea of a grammar school, but they quickly change their minds when they discover that their own children will not get in.

Since the target for a grammar school is the top 25 per cent of the ability range, it will always be a minority interest. Parents are also voters, and, when politicians seek election, you may have noticed that they tend to think in terms of majorities.

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