When governments choose bad policy it is usually because of some problem where demand for easy answers exceeds supply of good solutions. So it is with Theresa May’s intention to lift the ban on establishing new grammar schools.
It would be easy to dismiss the prime minister’s position as an indulgence of the nostalgic wing of her party, which romanticises the past as a blueprint for the future. Grammar schools enjoy hallowed status in parts of the Tory party (and Ukip) as historic engines of social mobility that transformed life chances for a generation of bright children from relatively poor backgrounds. Even if that was once true – evidence is mixed at best – it is an observation of little value in today’s educational landscape.
The heyday of grammar schools, from the mid-1940s to late 1960s, represents a period of relative social mobility and income equality in Britain. That reflects the massive levelling function of the second world war, its austere aftermath and the redistributive policies of post-war governments as much as it validates the era’s education system. That grammar schools thrived in a period of social change does not prove they were the cause.
The individual experiences of those who benefitted from the system, including MPs now craving its return, are not a basis for policymaking. By definition, the minority who passed the 11-plus exam are more likely to be in positions of influence, shaping the debate, than the majority who failed. This is what statisticians call survivorship bias – the tendency to extrapolate false conclusions from conspicuous data points, ignoring the volume of cases made invisible by the very process you are trying to judge.
Even if grammar schools boosted social mobility for the lucky few, they left many more behind and they certainly aren’t helping now. In areas that still use the 11-plus, the evidence proves that it favours affluent children and obstructs the poorest. The test measures parents’ ability to pay for coaching, not children’s natural capabilities. In Buckinghamshire, those who were privately educated are two-and-a-half times more likely to pass, while the rate for those on free school meals is one-eighth of the average. That is despite supposedly tutor-proof tests – a device Mrs May claims will eliminate class prejudice from the selection process.
Also phoney is the argument that grammar schools eliminate the problem of expensive catchment areas – selection by house price – which is just a different symptom of the same income-inequality problem. Wealthy parents will pay for the best available education, whether in real estate, private school fees or tuition to prepare for an 11-plus – options that are not available to all. Adding more selective schools doesn’t increase parental choice for the majority, it simply shifts the focus of payment in a different direction. Instead of levelling the field, new grammars will expand the market for exclusive tuition and private prep schools, accelerating social segregation.
While the case for grammars wilts under interrogation, the impetus behind their revival does not. Dismissing advocates of selection by ability as evidence-blind reactionaries risks ignoring reasons why the idea has not died. One is concern among parents, regardless of their income, that too many secondary schools lack an ethos of academic excellence. Another is the fact that social mobility has indeed stalled. It was to address those issues that the last Labour government devised the original city academies programme, any success of which is hard to discern because Michael Gove saw aggressive expansion of academy status as an end in itself, before any refinement of the means could be designed. The result was a chaotic upheaval that alienated teachers and confused parents. Labour responded by repudiating its own achievements in education policy, leaving the opposition vulnerable to the charge that it is in a reactionary rut of its own, idealising the pre-academies comprehensive model.
The unfortunate truth is that the English schooling system has become a messy laboratory of competing styles and structures. The wise but unexciting way to proceed is rigorous evaluation of evidence to see what is working in the interests of social mobility and rising standards. Then best practice may be replicated and failure addressed. The evidence is already clear on one point: grammar schools are not the answer, even if the demand for them expresses good questions.
News Source TheGuardianNews