The great grammar school delusion and the reversal of social progress

Straight line or zig-zag? Different views exist as to the typical trajectory of social progress. Is it a process of incremental gains which consolidate and steadily accumulate over time or does it resemble a jagged and erratic journey — strides forward followed by sharp reversals?

Societies, like people, generally like to think of themselves as steadily advancing. Buried somewhere in our collective unconscious is a Whiggish mind-set: old problems are steadily addressed even as new ones emerge, lessons are learnt and prospects raised. This faith in inevitable progress is currently deeply unfashionable given our current public discourse is dominated by dark populist threats, productivity stagnation and the fallout of perma-austerity. Yet even now a respectable case can still be made that on many issues, over the longer term, public policy evolves in a broadly benign way.

A familiar rhythm accompanies this forward march. From time to time a governing party resolves to smash through a failing status quo on an issue. Their opponents will eventually have to choose whether to validate the choice: indeed, often it will fall to them, when next in power, to see a reform through.

Contemporary examples aren’t hard to come by. The last Labour government set out an entirely new strategy for pensions policy which David Cameron’s Conservative-led government did much of the hard graft of actually delivering. Tony Blair introduced civil partnerships and Cameron then took it further with same-sex marriage. Sometimes a contentious but beneficial change gets completed by one administration leaving its successor to either make peace with it or rip it up in what, to many, would resemble an act of policy vandalism. They generally opt for the former. The Thatcher government privatised a range of state owned utilities just as Labour established the minimum wage. Both moves were railed against by the opposition. Both then survived unscathed when their authors lost power. Both were sensible — and have become deeply uncontroversial.

One of the great upsides of this evolution is that it clears space to talk about something else — new problems, more vexed issues. One of the best indicators of a society’s progress being the conversations it no longer needs to have.

Until recently the 11+ was safely in this box. Admittedly, it lingered on in a few parts of the country, and elements of the political right — especially when farthest from power — were intermittently keen for it to grow. But most of the time, politicians who were close to power viewed it as an anachronism, a residual from a bygone era. We didn’t by and large any longer need to talk about grammar schools.

Last week’s Budget announcement supporting the creation of a new generation of selective schools confirms all this has now changed. It is the most consequential domestic decision that the May government has taken to date. If it goes ahead — and there will be all manner of twists and turns before it does — we will be living with the fall-out long after the current row over national insurance and the self-employed disappears from memory.

The evidence on grammars is clear — the jury returned a verdict long ago. They are staggeringly socially selective with huge biases towards the well-off. New research shows that the most affluent 10 per cent of children in selective areas have a 50 per cent or higher chance of attending a grammar (the richest 1 per cent have an 80 per cent chance). In contrast the poorest 10 per cent have a 5 per cent or lower chance of going to a grammar. This isn’t all about the greater aptitude of the off-spring of the affluent. Take two bright 11 year olds — one well off, one disadvantaged — with identical Key Stage 2 results: the deprived pupil has a 25 per cent chance of attending a grammar compared to 70 per cent for their affluent counterpart. A 45 per cent gap. In a selective world class, not talent, rules.

And none of this takes into account the fact that the overall performance of poor children in selective areas is far worse than in non-selective areas. Grammars — and the secondary moderns that they always and everywhere create — entrench and deepen class-advantage in an already socially-skewed education system. No evidence exists for thinking otherwise.

Re-opening this issue now marks a reversal of a 50 year journey. It was Tony Crosland who as Secretary of State famously made it his mission to “destroy every fucking grammar school.” Yet it was Margaret Thatcher, instinctively appalled by her predecessor’s raw educational egalitarianism, who nonetheless ended up closing more selective schools than any other Education Secretary due to rising hostility to grammars from middle-class parents and Tory councillors.

This mixed political heritage can be seen in other flagship education reforms that flowed with the integrationist tide. Harold Wilson’s government proposed and planned for raising the school leaving age to 16 but, after delays, it fell to Ted Heath to actually make it happen. This resulted in pan-generational double-dividend: boosting educational attainment not only for those affected at the time but their future children too. Likewise the introduction of GCSEs — another pivotal if belated step in the creation of a comprehensive era — was first advanced by Labour’s Shirley Williams but developed and delivered by Keith Joseph.

When Tony Blair’s education-obsessed Labour government came to power and closed the assisted places scheme it made the defining question how to secure high-performing, all-ability, properly funded, self-managing state schools. The reforms broadly built on rather than replaced Ken Baker’s 1988 Education Act which itself was foreshadowed by Jim Callaghan’s “Great Debate” on the future of schools.

The Blair and Brown years saw overall standards rise and the huge attainment gap between poor children and the rest start to fall. Throughout this time many in Labour remained sceptical, however, about whether a new cross-party settlement in favour of non-selective schooling had truly been secured. It took the arrival of the Cameron government to put the issue to rest. All-ability schooling was embraced and selection shunned. Since 2010 the number of good and outstanding non-selective state schools has continued to steadily grow. This is what progress looks like.

None of this is to say that there aren’t all manner of failings, challenges and frustrations for pupils, parents and teachers alike in our current school system. Nor is it to dismiss the differences of approach that have long existed and still remain between the main parties on a range of other educational issues. But it is to say that the slow but steady move towards a cross-party consensus on improving our comprehensive system was a real achievement. Moving on from the great grammar school delusion counted for something.

Step back from the detail and one lesson is that in education any credit going to policy-makers for the slow-burn social improvement we have seen deserves to be shared between across the political aisle — the accommodator, as well as instigator, played its role. The converse is equally true: when it comes to the great governing failures that shame our society — like social care, housing, vocational education — no party is innocent.

But this time, on grammars, it’s different. Sole authorship exists for this act of social regression. Successful 21st century education systems around the world are ever more focused on high-quality teaching, rigorous standards and fostering creative thinking for all pupils regardless of background. Yet our priority will now be to divide more children into “sheep and goats” at age 11, just as we did half a century ago.

The clock is being turned back on decades of steady, hard-won, cross-party achievement. When it comes to the future of England’s schools progress is going to be a zig-zag not a straight line.

This article was first published in Prospect

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