A Concession on Grammar Schools
Since Theresa May’s ambitious 2016 proposal to expand Grammar schools was shelved last summer after the Conservatives lost their majority, the spotlight has once again been cast on the contentious issue of Grammar schools. This being due to the Education Secretary's announcement last month that £50 million had been allocated for the expansion of Grammar schools.
The money in question will most likely be used for the creation of ‘annexe’ or ‘satellite’ schools– offshoots of existing Grammars, created to cope with high demand for places; thereby slyly side-stepping the Blair-Blunkett era ban on the creation of new Grammar schools (except in cases where it is necessary in order cope with population expansion in wholly selective areas).
The controversial new proposal came to the dismay of critics from across the political spectrum and was condemned almost unanimously by Educational leaders who cited the mounting weight of evidence against Selective State Education, yet grammar schools continue to be totemic issue for many Conservatives.
Despite accusations of being antiquated and elitist, during a time of such little faith in the modern State Comprehensive system it isn’t hard to empathise with the backbenchers calling for sturdy, traditional education or the parents pushing to get their children into state funded grammar Schools. Especially with these institutions being held up as beacons of greater academic rigor and disciplinary robustness. As someone who has a predilection for that sort of thing and, has also gone through the cerebral upheaval that was the 11+ examination, it is almost counter-intuitive to delve into the disappointing reality of the grammar School system. But facts must be faced and it is clear that the motivation behind this expansion is a matter of political positioning rather than evidence.
For their uncompromising advocates, grammar schools are a meritocratic vehicle for social mobility. They provide an invaluable leg up for students from more disadvantaged background making them a useful alternative to expensive private education or overly-subscribed, high-achieving urban comprehensives. These claims however, rest on three very outdated proverbial pillars which predate even David Cameron’s 2007 Grammar-gate:
· That pupils generally perform better at grammar Schools than they do at non-selective schools
· That Disadvantaged pupils attending grammar schools do even better so that such schools reduce the poverty attainment gap and promote social mobility
· That there is little or no harmful consequence for other pupils in other schools.
Since then, there has been a steady trickle of evidence amassing that comprehensively debunks these sanguine theories. What’s more is that the detractors are not just the usual suspects. It is not just the likes of Lammy-McDonnell-Clegg, but also prominent Conservative voices like Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry, Ryan Shorthouse of Bright Blue, ranking amongst the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Education Union.
The evidence strongly indicates that despite appearances grammar schools don’t actually do better than their comprehensive counterparts in terms of pupil attainment. A major study carried out by Durham University using government data on 549,203 pupils in England, showed that when factors such as background and previous attainment are taken in account, students at selective schools have on average the same level of achievement as their peers at non-selective schools. Meaning that the glowing Ofsted reports, higher raw GCSE point scores and the alluring paean of other apparent successes of grammar schools simply reflect the nature of the students selected, those with higher academic achievement in the first place, as opposed to reflecting what happens inside the schools after they get in. In other words, a typical grammar school and a typical comprehensive school produces the same value added to a pupil’s educational attainment. Unsurprisingly, the high achievers clustered in grammar schools go onto to produce higher raw-outcome scores five years later at GCSE. This is hastily, and mistakenly, attributed to the merits of grammar school education by parents, commentators and policy-makers alike.
This is not to belittle the achievement of grammar school students and the work of their teachers- after all, shouldn’t the high attainment of even a select few students be celebrated?
It would be, if it were not heavily outweighed by the very visible negative impact that grammar schools have on surrounding state schools. The academic stratification created by grammar schools exacerbates pre-existing academic inequalities in students by providing differential opportunities to learn. The aggregation of high achieving students in one place is thought to cause more qualified teachers to flock to these schools leaving other state schools in the authority with less qualified teachers. This can in turn negatively influence how students are treated in these schools regarding teachers’ expectations and teacher-pupil relations. According to the Durham study this propagates a noxious cycle of wider non-cognitive outcomes to a tune of emotional and behavioural problems, a diminished sense of justice, inferior civic knowledge and reduced engagement. It would then seem that limiting the expansion of grammar Schools is not a reprehensible attempt to equalise academic outcomes, as their advocates frame it. There is mounting evidence that, by and large the academic rigor of grammar schools is nothing but a nostalgia-fed façade; one which produces no clear benefit for students within it while producing clear disadvantages for students outside of it, thereby driving down the overall national standards rather than raising them.
The other claim, that grammar schools aid social mobility and reduce the poverty attainment gap by providing disadvantaged students with greater educational opportunities is again, misrepresented. Though many of the 164 UK grammar schools have access-arrangements in place and have promised to do more to increase opportunities for disadvantaged pupils, the truth is that only 3% of Grammar School pupils are eligible for free school meals. Much lower than the national average of 14% across the state sector. Furthermore, most disadvantaged students do not live in the expensive leafy catchment areas where most grammar schools are situated, and many cannot afford the options of either coaching their children themselves or the hundreds of pounds in tuition needed to do well in 11+ examination. Therefore, despite the presentation of grammar schools as bastions of social mobility, they remain a thoroughly middle-class affair- entrenching privilege rather then spreading it.
The claim becomes all together more laughable when you consider the fact that most of the demand for grammar school places comes from more well-to-do families who are being increasingly priced out of the private education. We do not expect the tax payer to foot the bill for University goers who more often than not come from the same sort of background as the majority of the pupils in grammar Schools; so why should we expect the tax payer to subsidize the education of mostly middle-class pupils in the name providing greater access to the 3% underprivileged the pupils who attend them?
Of course, there are individual success stories, many of the pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the top UK universities are grammar school students and arguably this is reason enough to not to dismantle the 164 grammar schools but there seems to be no clear, substantiated reason for their expansion.
At best grammar schools are a gobbet of red meat thrown to appease Tory Backbenchers. At worst however, they are an unambitious distraction which will keep the Conservative party at the “shallow end of the educational debate” for a few more years. They don’t improve national education standards, they don’t aid social mobility nor do they reduce the poverty attainment gap. At a time when the Education budget is already at break-point we cannot afford to waste precious political capital on a misguided vanity project. Conservatives must concede in avoiding this unthinking, unnecessary concession for grammar schools.