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Government is all about legacy. What you can build, do or change that will have you remembered through the generations. Historically the Labour Party has preferred the former, building the NHS under Attlee, the Open University under Wilson and a house of cards under Blair. The Conservatives prefer the latter, change, meddling, “fixing.” The latest objet d’art in their sights is state education, long a political play thing, what this Government now want is to make it “work for everyone.” They want grammar schools.
As with free schools, academies and technical colleges before it, this scheme largely involves dividing up and hiving off parts of the education system to create “competition.” Normally this is competition between service providers but now they are cutting out the middleman and creating competition between students themselves.
I am, to my eternal shame, a grammar school student. Plucked from my friends at age 11 I was thrust into a blazer and thrown through the creaky old halls of Aylesbury Grammar. At the time I thought this was great, I remember crying with joy when I got my results, but I now look back with a creeping sense of dread. My school was not the bastion of social mobility I though and it certainly had no interest in helping the working class.
The vast majority of evidence indicates grammar schools don’t help social mobility. The initial issue is the 11+ itself. The tests are supposed to be tutor-proof, designed to stop parents buying little Julian and Jemima their place, they aren’t. Data obtained by Local Equal Excellent, an anti-selective campaign group, suggests that 70% of students at private primaries passed the 11+ whilst only 20% of state primary students do. After attempts to make the test contain more “real world” knowledge the results actually became worse, which perhaps says more about the assessors views on the “real world.”
For all the high minded claims to fairness any test is tutorable, changing the test simply changes what the tutor teaches. The industry that’s sprung up around the tests is actually quite impressive. Tutors have their own tests to keep their average scores up, some taken as young as 7 or 8, black market test papers are routine and all of those goes to the highest bidder. The 11+ isn’t a meritocratic system, it’s pay to win.
This means that the demographics at grammar schools shift heavily towards the wealthy. At my old school there are four times as many students from private schools as there were on free school meals. In Buckinghamshire the number of students entitled to free school meals is around 18%, whilst in grammar schools it’s 3%. Entitlement to FSM is a key measure of deprivation and it’s obvious from the numbers that the most deprived students are barely represented at grammar schools. There’s a higher percentage of students on FSM at private schools! The grammar system has, incredibly, managed to become even more elitist.
Of course no one could argue with grammar schools if they produced results, assuming that the grammar schools are just there to challenge more able students one would assume they boost local grades. Well, yes and no. Research done by Forbes suggests that whilst selective areas tend to produce more A*s they also produce lower numbers of passing grades as a whole. Those students who are more able do benefit hugely, unfortunately they do so to the disadvantage of other students.
This is because the corollary to introducing a grammar is to introduce a secondary modern, not a comprehensive but a different kind of school. Grammar schools are typically prestigious and receive large donations from families of students and former students. This means they can use their reputation and wealth to attract the best teachers from around the county, teachers that might otherwise have taught at comprehensives. Without these teachers to offer help to less able students those schools tend to produce worse results, entrenching disadvantages. This would be bad in a truly meritocratic system, in our pay to win system it’s positively diabolical.
Creating a system of entrenched privilege and then introducing it to children aged 11 is even damaging to those few lucky students. At my grammar a snobbery developed within the school, anyone who didn’t get in was unintelligent. The students at the comprehensive up the road were “thugs,” “neanderthals,” and perhaps more subtly “working class.” This snobbery had been bred into us by the lie that we were there because of our own work, that we lived in a meritocracy. This is arguably the most damaging part.
The meritocratic trappings of a grammar education help it feel less arcane. It’s a comforting lie for an 11 year old; you are here, getting this better education because you deserve it. It’s entirely designed to appeal to our own vanity and sense of self worth. Those students aren’t getting a worse education because of societal factors or inequality, they’re getting it because they weren’t bright enough, weren’t able enough and, in true Tory style, didn’t work hard enough. Never mind that only 3% are on free school meals, those kids had their chance and they blew it.
Occasionally the government will wheel out one of its grammar school boys “dun good;” Chris Philp, Conservative MP for Croydon South, is a common one, “Peckham to Parliament” as he puts it, and they’ll tell you how it was the chance they needed to succeed. In a way, I feel bad for Chris Philp, to be reduced to a sideshow attraction within his own party. Roll up, Roll up! Come see the working class kid who was good enough to join our ranks! Maybe this could be you someday!
The worst part is that the Government knows all of this. They admitted in 2007 that “there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it.” So much for a nation that doesn’t just work for a privileged few.
Grammar schools aren’t a meritocracy, they’re not even a lottery, they’re little more than a pattern of comforting lies. Lies told to children, and our Prime Minister supports them.