Oxford University accepted three times as many pupils from Eton College than pupils on free school meals between 2009 and 2012. And one in 20 UK adults are functionally illiterate- far outnumbering their counterparts in similarly developed nations. It is obvious that a deep rot flourishes at the heart of our education system.
So no wonder there are signals that a boost for grammar schools could be ahead as the government scrambles together a strategy for “levelling up” schooling. A White Paper published in March proposed allowing grammars to maintain their selective status, even if they join one of the multi-academy trusts the government are so keen on expanding.
Before his Education Secretary days, Nadhim Zahawi praised the virtues of grammars, and spoke in favour of their revitalisation in an article for this very website. Meanwhile, the claim that Number 10 is open to lifting the ban on new grammars has been made, despite civil servants reportedly pouring cold water on the idea. Whether or not the alleged scheme, like Theresa May’s short-lived pro-grammar pivot, is set to flop, the argument for their renaissance endures.
Jonn Elledge recently claimed that many Conservatives back grammars “partly because the era of selective education coincided with economic growth and social mobility, and it’s easy to mix up correlation and causation”. Yet Elledge forgets that the era of selective education never ended at all. Access to “better” schools is more dependent on one’s finances or questionable religious conversion than it was back when we still needed ration books.
Most working-class British children have no choice but to attend mediocre schools. Meanwhile, the members of the upper and middle classes who decide against independent schools are able to gain better education for their children – via pricey locations or tutoring-funnel their children into the dwindling number of grammar schools heavily concentrated in the South East. They also dominate the small number of uber-successful “state” schools such as Fulham’s prized Oratory School.
The reality is that the destruction of grammar schooling was never about equalising opportunity. It was an emotionalist, utopian move to “equalise” the classroom at any cost as successive administrations failed to fortify the pre-war system for the bulging classrooms of the baby boomer generation.
The aptly-named Graham Savage, the civil servant who partly spearheaded the destruction of grammars, admitted that he thought Britain ought to model itself on the US’ more “democratic” comprehensive system, even if it lowered performance – which he correctly predicted that it would.
Of course, the grammar system of yesteryear was imperfect, and any attempt to revitalise it would require tweaks. Selection at age 11, for example, may be premature for some pupils. The average age students are selected for different programs across OECD countries is 14. Academic selection on a rolling basis with no rigid age cut off could also ensure better outcomes.
There are also complaints that a more selective system would leave children rejected from grammar schooling feeling ostracised and subpar. Yet there is no automatic requirement that selective schooling shame those who take “non-academic” pathways. The expansion of grammars would necessitate an equal attempt to revalorise vocational options, plenty of which have similar or better salary outcomes than that of the average graduate.
The widespread degradation of vocational options in today’s system is one of the worst forms of elitism. Such attitudes inadvertently denigrate the value of trades and other such occupations, many of which continue to suffer severe staffing gaps. Students who opt for practical routes are either pressured to attend university by teachers or decide to do so for its perceived social advantages. It is hardly surprising that eight British universities are under investigation for offering poor courses.
Another well-worn argument of the anti-grammar wing is that academically selective schools act against social mobility. No doubt they dismiss as anecdotal evidence the fact that between 1964 and 1997 a succession of Conservative and Labour prime ministers from working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds all benefited from a grammar school education. Not to mention the other countless swathes of our cultural and professional milieu who rose from the grammar school ranks.
Moreover, figures from 1954, just before the overwhelming of the tripartite system by the post World War Two baby boom, nearly 65 per cent of grammar school students were working class. Contrast this with 2016, when fewer than three per cent of grammar school students were eligible for free school meals, compared to 14 per cent for all school types.
It remains likely that any rumoured plans to revive extensive grammar schooling will be sidelined or frustrated. However it is a terrible shame that so many arguments against grammar ignore the inadequacy of the current system for working-class students, and caricature those who suggest grammars might play a part in their remedy.