Grammar schools: selective memory

2 Nov 16
Theresa May sees grammar schools as engines of social mobility – but history shows that they mainly benefited children who were better off

Theresa May is determined to forge her own form of conservatism, distinct from David Cameron’s. She has abandoned the Treasury’s fiscal target, promised greater infrastructure spending and toughened up the rhetoric on immigration.

Yet few policies mark her new form of conservatism quite as emphatically as her decision to allow new grammar schools to open in England. Cameron had ruled out increases in selective education, famously saying that those who still hankered for a return to grammar schools were “delusional”.

Cameron’s position continued a long-established consensus. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, the number of grammar schools in England had dwindled from a few thousand to a few hundred. Both Margaret Thatcher and John Major had been careful not to rule out new grammars, but none opened under either of their governments. In 1998, Tony Blair’s government ended the uncertainty by legislating to ban new selective schools. This decision officially confined the grammar school system to a few areas. Both Blair and Cameron instead chose to reform the comprehensive sector, with the introduction of academies and free schools. May’s new line has shattered this consensus.

The lure of selective education is perhaps understandable.

The prime minister sees herself as the champion of those who are “only just getting by”. She sees grammar schools as great engines of social mobility: poor but able children can be plucked from disadvantage and sent to the best schools in the country. Educational destiny is decided not by postcode but ability. This story is compelling, but
the evidence consistently fails to support it. Research from the Sutton Trust shows that fewer than 3% of grammar school entrants in selective regions are eligible for free school meals – an indicator of social disadvantage – compared with 18% of all children who are eligible for free school meals in the same regions. Indeed, grammar school entrants are more than four times more likely to come from outside the state sector (probably from fee- paying preparatory schools) than to receive free school meals.

Of course, some students from disadvantaged backgrounds have benefited from a grammar school education. But poor students in selective areas achieve worse average GCSE results than their counterparts in non-selective areas.

Even when grammar schools were at their most abundant, the evidence suggests that they did not help the most disadvantaged. In the 1950s, one third of grammar school pupils from the most deprived backgrounds left without a single O-level. Of those who left grammars with two or more A-levels, fewer than 0.3% were from the “unskilled working class” – despite them making up 26% of the general population.

Support for grammar schools often seems to rest upon an outdated view of the performance of the non-selective system. During the 1980s, when comprehensives were still in their relative infancy, attainment appeared to stagnate. But successive governments have presided over significant improvements.

In the 1980s, just 20% of students achieved five or more good grades (A*-C) at O-level. Today, the equivalent figure for GCSEs is above 80%. Since 2002, the proportion of disadvantaged children achieving five or more A*–C grades at GCSE (including English and maths) has doubled from 17% to 34%.

These successes have resulted from improvements in non- selective education. May should note these and follow the evidence on what does and does not work. New grammar schools would be a return to the past and take resources away from reforms proven to be effective in raising standards for all.

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