Grammar schools are not escape routes from poverty, they are schools for the middle classes and it's time that selection by ability was abolished.
The piece below was written for CiF
Geoffrey Alderman's assertion that grammar schools offer an "escape from poverty" to bright working-class children who are otherwise denied real educational opportunity, relies heavily on highlighting past individual successes (like his own) without establishing how representative they actually are - or ever were.
David Jesson's latest piece of research clearly demonstrates that the surviving grammar schools in England are, in the main, schools for the middle classes. What Jesson shows is that the proportion of children eligible for free school meals - maybe imperfect but it is the most commonly used indicator of social disadvantage - is much lower in selective than in non-selective schools in every one of the 36 local authorities that retain at least some grammar schools.
This year well over half of all 15-16 year olds in maintained schools achieved five or more "higher passes" at the end of compulsory schooling. This is the hurdle set in the past for only those attending grammar schools, one that many, even of that selected minority, failed to surmount. In 1970, 47% of pupils left secondary school with no qualifications; in 2005 that figure was down to 4%. Between 1989 and 2005 the percentage of 16-18 year olds in full-time education rose from 37.6 to 80.3. In 1971-72 14% of under-21 year olds entered higher education, in 2004-2005 42% entered.
Having over a third of school leavers enter higher education is an aim that would have seemed impossibly ambitious a generation ago. Given that expenditure on education did not increase in real terms between the mid-1970s and the late-1990s this remarkable increase in productivity, as measured by qualifications, is attributable, in large part, to the removal of the barrier of the 11-plus for some four-fifths of the population.
Since comprehensive education was introduced, barriers to achievement for many young people have been removed. The annual government statistics of school attainment, examination results, and participation in further and higher education offer clear evidence of a "levelling up" over the last 25 years. In some areas of England it is reasonable to regard comprehensive schooling not as a "failed experiment" but as an experiment that has not yet been tried.
However, it is important to emphasise that it is selection that needs abolishing; anti-selection campaigners are not suggesting that particular schools should be closed. There is no reason why the remaining 164 grammar schools themselves should not remain pretty much as they are now. They would have the same buildings, the same governors, the same head teachers and staff, the same resources, the same curriculum, uniform and largely the same funding. The only real change will be in the academic profile of the pupils attending the school. Indeed one would expect that if the quality of education really is as high as many of the pro-grammar school supporters suggest, a more balanced intake would not have a hugely detrimental effect on standards.
With the Conservative leadership now convinced that grammar schools are bad for Britain and with the prime minister in need of some passion-rousing policies that will unite his movement's natural supporters and signal a shift towards a more radical and egalitarian agenda, we may well be nearing the time when selection by ability will, finally, be abolished for good.
There now appears to be cross-party consensus that selective schools are not escape routes from poverty, do not offer good value for money and do not help raise standards overall. It is now time to address, once and for all, the archaic and socially exclusive policy of academic selection. I doubt David Cameron has the stomach for it but what about Gordon Brown?