Any expansion of grammar schools in England will be a mechanism for intensifying social divisions.
The arrival of any new secondary school alters the local educational ecology. The arrival of an entirely selective school has a particularly damaging effect. It drastically recasts the intake of all other schools in an area, and at a stroke turns them, however they are named, into secondary moderns.
Maintaining a high level of attainment in public exams is made more difficult for these schools. They find it harder to secure their League Table position. OfSTED penalises them. These are the schools most children within a selective system will attend.In this way the expansion of grammar schools will bring back the old “11-plus system” where the majority of children were consigned to a second-class education — a narrow curriculum and low expectations.
In addition grammar schools have always catered overwhelmingly for children from richer households. Detailed analysis by the School Dash website shows that the intake of certain types of school is significantly biased against the poorest children. Secondary schools labelled “outstanding” by OfSTED, single-sex schools, and certain types of faith school, generally take less than their share of poor children, but grammar schools show the most obvious bias in this regard.
At present, 164 grammar schools exist in England. The Tory think-tank, Policy Exchange, pointed out in 2012 that only three of these contained a student-population of which more than 10% was eligible for free school meals (FSM), a standard proxy for impoverishment.42 grammar schools registered between 3% and 10% FSM students. 98 schools (some 60% of the total number) contained fewer than 3% of such students.
A further 21 had fewer than 1%.The School Dash analysis also suggests that school selection and admission processes have an even more powerful effect on socio-economic segregation than does housing costs. Grammar schools are past-masters at fixing their entry-criteria. They will continue to find ways of deciding who they select.
In the small number of local authority areas which retain a fully-selective system, such as Buckinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Kent and Medway, the contrast between the two broad types of school, grammar and secondary moderns, is stark. Buckinghamshire has 13 grammar schools, all labelled “outstanding” or “good” by OfSTED. It has 21 secondary moderns, of which over half are either in Special Measures or have been designated as “requires improvement”. All 26 grammar schools in Kent are “outstanding”, but only three of the county’s secondary moderns are so labelled.
In an attempt to head off criticism that many children gain places in Buckinghamshire’s grammar schools via intensive and expensive private tutoring, the county introduced so-called “tutor-proof” tests. These have made the situation worse. The number of grammar school places taken up by children from state primary schools has fallen, while those taken up by privately educated children has risen. Buckinghamshire's BME children are disproportionately allocated to secondary moderns.
Hard right Tory activists from the Conservative Voice group, led by Liam Fox and David Davis, have spearheaded the drive for more grammars.They commonly claim that the grammar/secondary-modern system enabled poor but “bright” children to leave behind their impoverished origins and rise in society. Figures from the 1950s and early 1960s, the heyday of that system, belie this claim.
The Gurney-Dixon report (1954), which looked at extending staying-on rates in grammar schools (and recommended opening more such schools), found that: “... from the children of parents in professional or managerial occupations at one extreme to the children of unskilled workers at the other there is a steady and marked decline in performance at the grammar school, in the length of school life, and in academic promise at the time of leaving.”
In other words, the very few children from the poorest backgrounds who made it into grammar school were much more likely to leave school early, and attain less highly, than their better-off peers.The academic attainment record of very many of these children actually declined as they passed through the grammar school. The report found that two-thirds of the children of unskilled workers left grammar school with fewer than three O-levels.
Given that grammar schools were established to ensure success at public exams, this is a disgraceful figure. (Education policy prevented most students in secondary modern schools from sitting public exams until the late 1960s.) In the Sixth Form, only one-third of one per cent (0.3%) of grammar school pupils securing two A levels — then the standard outcome — were from the skilled working class. Grammar schools failed their working-class minority.
We reject the discourse of social mobility that defenders of grammar schools often employ.It is not mobility within the system for individual members of the working class that most concerns us, but how to mobilise the class as a whole in pursuit of a more just and equal order.Likewise, the determinist discourse of fixed innate “ability”, the bedrock of selection, must be superseded. They are not always and forever, under any conditions, either “bright” or “less bright”. The fixed “ability” discourse, manifested ultimately in a set of tests given at a certain age (classically in the 11+ exam) constructs and produces what it purports only to describe: the distinguishing of the academically “able” child from the rest.This discourse seeks fraudulently to legitimise as a matter of social justice the requirement that “academic” children receive an education suited to their supposed needs, and that other types of education are offered to other types of children.
This false view of human educability, as having inherently greater or lesser limits depending only on the individual, remains widespread. It informs much of the thinking and decision-making about student-grouping and the nature of the curriculum in England’s maintained education system, even in non-selective schools. It must continue to be challenged as educationally damaging and wasteful; as, to use Theresa May’s words, “sacrificing children’s potential because of dogma and ideology”.
Against such calls, we must argue for an anti-determinist understanding of human educability, and for an education system based on the comprehensive ideal.
By Clive Larkin
I went to school in Kent, headquarters of the grammar school class-reproduction system.In June 1973 I left school at 16 with no idea what I was going to do.
I’d had some experience working at a bakery, as a window cleaner, delivering newspapers, cleaning the floors in Tesco and working with my dad on various building sites.Plenty of low-skilled jobs were on offer for a working class kid predicted to fail the three “O” levels and five CSEs he sat that year.
I was working at Harry Fenton’s Menswear when the results came out in August 1973. I had passed those “O” levels.Suddenly I had options. Unlike 90% plus of all the other secondary modern students I’d inadvertently crashed the 11-plus system which decided who should get academic qualifications and who shouldn’t.In 1965 the Labour Government issued Circular 10/65 which encouraged Local Authorities to convert all their schools to comprehensives.
Kent was a bit slow but the Catholic Church school I went to was keen to convert. And so I was sitting some “O” levels as part of a pilot scheme. All our “academic” students had left at the end of year 8.
In 1967 the 11-plus exam was replaced by the 13 plus which didn’t even involve an exam — we were just told whether we were staying at the Secondary Modern or going to one of the grammar schools.I “failed” the 13-plus in 1970 and so was destined for educational failure.
In 1976 I started a History BA and in 1980 I started teaching.We must fight with every means at our disposal to stop the reintroduction of the grammar school system. It had no redeeming features. It was, and is, odious!