Like many people, I feel conflicted about grammar schools.
I live in a part of the country where they are a mainstream part of the school system. The minority of local children who pass the 11+ have high chances of thriving at one of our three local(ish) grammar schools, but the majority who don’t often do less well. Indeed, the closest non-selective secondary school in our county, where those who do not pass the 11+ are expected to go, was rated ‘Inadequate’ by Ofsted in 2017.
I remember being shown around our local junior school by two very impressive girls who had just received their 11+ results. Both of them had missed the pass mark by just a point or two. I am not sure they fully realised (yet) how those couple of marks could affect the whole of the rest of their education as well as impact upon their subsequent employment opportunities. When he was Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott recalled the sense of failure he still felt fifty years after failing the 11+– though admittedly, in his case, the sense of failure may actually have spurred him on to greater political success.
Game-playing is a fact of life when living in an 11+ area, at least for those families with the wherewithal and knowledge to work out the rules. There are five ways around the system where I live.
- Lots of extra and expensive tutoring before the test.
- Appealing against the results if your child has just missed out.
- Becoming involved with the local church to boost the chances of your child getting into a high-performing church school that does not use academic selection but is some distance away.
- Finding a place in a neighbouring county, where comprehensive schools rather than grammars and secondary moderns rule the roost.
- Paying for an independent school, either before your child takes the 11+ in order to boost their chances of success or afterwards if they do not pass (or both).
A small minority of families know the rules but choose not to play the game by excluding their children from the exam, sometimes due to extra anxiety or a fear of failure or a principled objection.
All these factors should make me vehemently opposed to grammar schools. Another, more personal, factor should too: I worked for a politician, David Willetts, for a decade who is well-known for shifting the Conservative Party’s position away from grammar schools. There was an outcry when he declared grammar schools do less to promote social mobility than right-of-centre politicians like to think, although his party leader, David Cameron, backed him by claiming that grammar school advocates were ‘splashing around in the shallow end of the educational debate’.
Yet, despite all this, I have always suspected the debate about grammar schools should be more nuanced than the two deeply-entrenched positions for and against suggest. First, it is one of those issues – like Brexit or capital punishment – where the public and the political class seem to be divided. It is true the public are less keen on grammar schools when they are reminded that more grammar schools means more secondary moderns too. But, even then, more people support than oppose the concept, and this is despite being told repeatedly that they should change their minds. It is not healthy to have too many issues where the establishment and the public are so out of step, especially when – unlike capital punishment – it is not a matter of life or death.
Secondly, the remaining grammar schools have proved remarkably tenacious, surviving left-wing, right-wing and coalition governments and finding support from local politicians of all persuasions too. We need to think about why, and we also need to ask whether yet more campaigns in favour of abolishing grammar schools will simply end up as a virtue-signalling waste of effort that could have been better spent on other issues that might do more to improve our education system.
Thirdly, the single worst post-war education policy, to my mind, occurred when Shirley Williams forced most of the old direct-grant grammar schools into the fully independent sector. This put incredible schools like Manchester Grammar and King Edward’s in Birmingham more out of reach of less well-off families. It showed progressive rhetoric can lead to regressive policies.
Fourthly, I share the distaste experienced by so many when politicians condemn academic selection for children as a whole while choosing to send their own offspring to schools that select on academic ability and / or wealth. Having one rule for the few and another for the many makes political debates uncomfortably raw, deepens societal divides and makes policymakers look like hypocrites.
The new paper by Iain Mansfield for the Higher Education Policy Institute helps clarify the whole issue in a new way. It shows the public may well be right to regard grammar schools as contributing to social mobility more than the experts have recognised. Without these state-funded selective schools and with all other things being equal, Oxbridge would have even fewer students with Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. In addition, the Russell Group would have far fewer students from the bottom half of the income distribution. With prestigious universities, rightly or wrongly, maintaining their role as a gateway to highly-paid and prestigious careers, the benefits to such students are unlikely to end there. It may even be the case that the superficially regressive policy of expanding grammar schools may end up being rather progressive.
Perhaps access to higher education is a poor test of the value of school selection. After all, our test is whether selective schools get pupils into hyper-selective universities. Perhaps the universities should change instead?
But one of the oddities of the anti-grammar school lobby is that they never seem to be opposed to academic selection on principle; they just seem to be opposed to it at age 11. As an experiment, try asking anti-grammar school campaigners when selection becomes acceptable. Whenever I have done so, I have never had a straight answer. They will generally refuse to tell you just when it is between the ages of 11 and 18 that selection becomes acceptable (14?, 16?, 18?), only that it does. Private schools and University Technical Colleges assume age 13 or 14 is a good point of transition. The law allows for more selection at 16 than at younger ages. But are these numbers more sensible than 11 or just as random?
It remains unclear why anti-grammar campaigners have rejected the more radical and logical option: changing our higher education sector so that it matches our mainstream school system. In other words, accepting that if the comprehensive ideal is right for schools then it may also be right for higher education, and universities should become more comprehensive in approach. If they did, the arguments for maintaining and expanding existing grammar school provision might largely fall away. If it seems a fanciful or silly idea, remember the Open University has long accepted all-comers and that, in some countries, a pass in the school-leaving exam is enough to secure a place at a local higher education institution.
HEPI has published a radical proposal on this, written by Professor Tim Blackman, Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University. It is one of the most interesting papers we have ever published. But only a very few influential people have backed it, most notably Matthew Taylorof the RSA and Sonia Sodhaof the Observer. In the main, the ideas in the paper have not been taken up even by the most progressive elements of the left. Which is odd because, if campaigners wish to end selection in schooling, they must surely address the main drivers of it, and the most important of those is getting into a ‘top’ university.
Mansfield’s and Blackman’s papers, though superficially very different, are in some sense parallels: both recognise the inconsistency of the current system, even though they take opposite policy directions to resolve it.
If we aren’t prepared to have these conversations, then it is unlikely that parents with social capital but insufficient funds to send their children to private schools will suddenly come to oppose grammar schools. After all, these schools provide one of the main routes by which their children can raise their chances of obtaining a place at one of the older and more famous universities that are constantly lauded by policymakers, in league tables and in the media.