Even With a Reformed Model, Grammar Schools Will Still Increase Inequality

Last Friday, Theresa May outlined her new policy proposals in a speech at the British Academy in London. The most prominent feature of this speech was the declaration of education reform in order to attain her goal of increasing social mobility and meritocracy by lifting the 1998 ban on creating new grammar schools.

While May’s rhetoric of improving social mobility and squashing inequality is noble, her vision of achieving this through the creation of new selective schools vastly demonstrates her ignorance in the matter. It is genuinely surprising that she would make such a controversial announcement, especially amongst a plethora of evidence proving that grammar schools are increasing inequality rather than quelling it.

Critics were quick to remark on these new plans, including many prominent figures within the Tory party itself. Nicky Morgan, the previous Secretary of Education, criticised the move as “weird” and stated it posed a risk to the last six years of education reform. Even Alan Milburn, the chair of the government’s social mobility commission, denounced the plans and stated that “more grammar schools would be a disaster,” suggesting the creation of new grammars could create an “us and them” division within education. Many more politicians are viewing the plan as risky, especially as the Conservative Party does not hold a majority in the House of Commons and the plan is already lacking in supporters.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has also warned of the consequences that new grammar schools will have on social mobility, pointing to research that suggests the creation of grammar schools has a negative impact on those who do not pass the 11 plus test. IFS also revealed that in today’s grammar schools, pupils are four times more likely to have been educated outside of state primary schools than to be entitled to free school meals. The research also discovered that in current grammar schools only 3% of students have free school meals while the average in grammar school areas is 17%. This suggests overall that students in selective schools are more likely to have come from private prep schools than from severely disadvantaged backgrounds.

You can’t deny that for those who are selected at grammar schools the benefits are huge, but for those who aren’t the consequences are more severe. In areas with large numbers of grammar schools like Kent and Buckinghamshire, research has found that poor pupils perform below the national average, proving the negative impact grammars can have on surrounding comprehensive schools.

This evidence supports the notion that grammar schools are generally dominated by the middle classes rather than the poorest in our society. When positions in grammar schools are so desirable, parents who can afford private tuition and private preps will have children who can get ahead and this is reflected in the lack of diversity in today’s grammar schools.

Of course, Theresa May could not ignore this evidence and the controversial history of selective schools. She has promised that new grammar schools would not return to the ways of their 1950s counterparts and that greater measures would be taken to ensure selective schools are predominantly for those from less affluent backgrounds. These new schools will have a quota to fill for those from poorer backgrounds and the 11 plus test would be made as ‘tutor-proof’ as possible.

Once again, I will say that May’s intentions appear to be noble, but the reality of new grammars would not live up to her rhetoric. Even though the few selected from disadvantaged backgrounds would hugely benefit, there are no clear measures from May that prevent the inevitable effect that a new grammar school would have on surrounding comprehensives. State schools and academies that have been growing successfully would suddenly look like second rate schools in comparison to their local grammar. It has already been proven that the presence of grammar schools increase admissions in local private schools, as some middle-class parents whose children fail the 11 plus would rather pay private fees than send their children to a less desirable comprehensive. It begs the question, are the benefits of grammar schools for those few who attain a place worth the negative effects on the local state schools?

The effects on local schools are not the only issue with May’s reformed grammar model. The statement that tests will become almost completely ‘tutor-proof’ has been slammed in recent research that studies the effect of ‘tutor-proof’ tests in selective schools in Buckinghamshire. The movement, Local Equal Excellence, conducted a study in Buckinghamshire selective schools with data from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) and found that the new ‘improved’ tests actually increased the number of privately educated children passing whilst those children from local state primary schools were less successful. Furthermore, the number of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) children also saw a drop in pass rates, no matter what class background they were from, which suggests that there is also a level of cultural bias in these tests.

This evidence highlights the question; how can you truly test a child’s ability at the age of 11, and can upbringing and social background affect the development of cognitive and language abilities? It is well known now that there are varying factors accredited to intelligence so it makes it difficult to truly measure. It seems clear that at the very least a private prep education and tutoring gives children a head start in cognitive development, which makes the fact that we still have 11 plus tests that favour wealthy, white British pupils quite disturbing.

Buckinghamshire’s failure is reflective of the failure of grammar schools across the country to provide fair and equal opportunities for those from impoverished backgrounds. Testing children on the 11 plus can not only be detrimental to the confidence of those who fail, it is also intrinsically unfair as it is so obviously weighted by private education, tutoring, and class background. With selection comes increased social segregation and resentment. The only way to counter this would be to increase the number of children from deprived backgrounds being selected for grammar schools by lowering the threshold score for those children. This is an action suggested by Dr Lee Elliot Major, the chief executive of The Sutton Trust, but as he points out it would be a “radical” move for the government and one they might not be willing to take.

It is unquestionable that there are still many underlying issues of inequality in the UK, particularly post-recession, and this needs to be addressed. But increasing inequality for the benefit of a few with new grammar schools is not the answer. Many comprehensives and academies are doing better today than ever before, and this is particularly noticeable in London where they have previously underachieved. The current schooling system is by no means a disaster, so this proposed radical overhaul of education is a completely unnecessary policy and potentially damaging to the progress of our current education system. To create better opportunities for pupils from poorer backgrounds, investment should be made into increasing teaching quality and standards in comprehensives, not by further impoverishing them by creating new selective schools.