Theresa May’s grammar schools are a meritocratic confidence trick

'Rise with your class, not out of it'


In her first speech from Downing Street, Theresa May painted herself as the ‘social mobility’ prime minister. Now she has suggested that the ban on new grammar schools could be lifted. This would be a mistake.

The logic put forward by May and her supporters is simple: too many bright kids are being held back by an education system that favours the lowest common denominator.

By giving them a chance to thrive among other clever children, grammar schools allow working class boys and girls to join the ranks of the middle classes.

It is an attractive argument, and it is almost entirely wrong.

The evidence consistently shows that grammar schools do not reflect the social makeup of their communities (the percentage of children receiving free school meals is 2.6 per cent compared with 14.9 per cent across the whole sector), and in fact the presence of grammar schools in ‘segregated’ counties actually pulls down the achievement of pupils at local comprehensives.

But then this is a debate that is not usually held with much recourse to facts and figures. Experience of the education sector is near-universal (we were all children once), and so the question of grammar schools resonates on a personal level.

Success stories are brought out: would Alan Bennett have gone to Oxford and then on to stardom without his grammar school education?

Setting aside the problem of using an anecdote to counter a fact, times have changed since the grammars’ heyday in the 1940s-1960s.

As Left Foot Forward’s former editor James Bloodworth points out in his excellent The Myth of Meritocracy, this was a time of immense structural change: the number of white-collar, middle class jobs was expanding greatly and a rising working class was there to fill them; there was more ‘room at the top’.

It is different now – the elite is increasingly a closed shop. Look at the Olympics: in 2012, 37 per cent of British medalists were educated at private schools, while the private sector educates only 7 per cent of the nation’s children. For senior judges, the figure is 71 per cent, and even pop music has an unusual preponderance (22 per cent) of privately-educated stars.

Naturally, the Conservatives in parliament (48 per cent) are unwilling to tackle this fundamental inequality in our education system and so have turned instead to grammar schools as the supposed engine of social mobility. But, as Owen Smith says, ‘grammar schools entrench disadvantage – they don’t overturn it.’

I went to a grammar school, got good ‘A’ levels and became the first in my family to attend university. I was quite a bright kid at primary school, but then I knew lots of other bright kids, many of whom did not pass the eleven-plus.

At that point our respective paths were set. In her autobiography, the former Labour education secretary Shirley Williams writes,

‘The eleven-plus system was too rigid to allow for variations in children’s intellectual development […] In theory a child who did well could transfer from a secondary modern to a grammar school. In practice less than 2 per cent of children ever did so.’

Ours is a society where our life chances are largely set by the age of three. The best Theresa May and her fellow advocates of selective education can come up with is to widen the gap at the age of eleven, allowing a trickle of working-class children through the net but holding the rest back.

The Scottish socialist John Maclean said, almost a hundred years ago, ‘rise with your class, not out of it’.

He must have hoped that the day was coming when the working class, with its belief in self-improvement, would take its place at the centre of British life. He would be sad to see just how misplaced that hope was.

Selection will always exist in education: by postcode, faith, supposed ability and, most perniciously, by parental wealth.

The aim must be to reduce the inequities in the system to such an extent that the idea of spending an extra £20,000 on a house in a school’s catchment area would be laughed at.

But the political will to improve standards across the board cannot have full force until there are no ‘escape routes’ for the children of the privileged.

If we want social mobility for the many and not just for the lucky then we need a solution that benefits all pupils. Grammar schools are not the answer.

Scott Yearsley is a freelance writer

See: People don’t have money to spend – and the government won’t act

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