David Butterfield

Are grammar schools unfair?

Are grammar schools unfair?
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Those dread words ‘Grammar schools’ are back in the news again. The education secretary, Damian Hinds, has today announced a new fund that will allow established academically selective schools, i.e. the 163 grammars clustered around the country, to found new ‘satellite’ schools. The proposal could increase pupil numbers at grammar schools by 16,000 over the next four years. The news has been met with the typical mixture of surprise and outrage; amidst the tried-and-tested to-and-fro, it is hard to find much reasoned and sustained argument. Everyone, it seems, knows where they – and everyone else – stand. But, dig a little deeper into the issues at stake, and Hinds is found to be asking the nation the two difficult questions it needs to answer. First, should the same educational opportunities be equally available to pupils around the country? Second, and more crucially, should school teaching be academically selective, whether between schools or between classrooms? If yes, what principles of selection should the state support? If not, how best to prepare pupils for those careers (and universities) that will make selections on an academic basis?

After the debacle of last year’s election, Theresa May felt obliged to abandon her controversial commitment to increase the number of grammar schools – just one of many sore points in the Manifesto That Not Many Fessed To. Without a Commons majority, but with an ex-grammar-school education secretary now in post, a lower-scale proposal has been made: £50m will be offered to existing grammar schools to allow them to expand by building ‘satellite’ schools in the local area. The conditions for such expansion, agreed by the Grammar School Heads Association, are that schools will make provisions for accepting a higher proportion of poorer pupils, and that close links will be forged with (non-selective) primary schools in the area of any ‘satellite’ establishment.

The principle, then, is to expand academically selective schools but with the proviso of securing a representative socio-economic background. Some will complain that this is unwelcome social engineering; others that it simply creates more schools that will favour the already well-off. One of the most strongly-voiced and widely-aired attacks on grammar schools is that they do not help social mobility. In principle, a school that selects on nothing other than academic talent should be opening up educational doors to those with few resources beyond their brains – but, in practice, we are told otherwise.

To dispel the ‘myth’ of social mobility in selective education, the most obvious – but also the most crude – approach is typically taken. This is to focus exclusively on the present state of grammar schools as proof of how the system could never work. Do this, and the figures are indeed problematic. The national average of pupils in state schools (including grammars) eligible for Free School Meals in the last seven years (FSM6) – a common if unreliable marker of poverty – is 29 per cent. Although the highest intake by a grammar school is 27 per cent (Handsworth Grammar, Birmingham), grammar schools as a whole average a mere seven per cent. This striking discrepancy reflects the truth that, as things stand, they are primarily bastions of the better-heeled middle classes. But this fact – rather than being read against the recent history of grammar schools – is instead taken to be clear evidence that academic selection can do little to transform the lives of those from humbler backgrounds. This is a travesty – and ignores what was the driving purpose of these schools for most of the last millennium.

The haphazard process by which grammar schools have been pared back since 1960 has left enormous imbalances in places where these schools exist. The relatively even geographical spread of the 1,300 grammars in the early 1960s declined rapidly in that era of social and cultural transformation: in fifteen years, the figure plummeted to below 200. Now 163 survive – yet their perverse distribution would baffle any casual observer. Most counties – including many of the most populated – have none to their name. But look elsewhere: there are six on the Wirral, eight in Birmingham, and fifteen in Lincolnshire. Central London largely lacks them, but its commuter districts do well: Essex has eight, Bucks thirteen. Most strikingly, 37 – nearly a quarter of the total – are in Kent. Yet in many of the most deprived areas of the country there are no grammar schools at all. There is not a single grammar in the North East, nor in most industrial towns of the North. Remarkably, there’s only one grammar school north of Ripon – in Penrith, Cumbria.

These are not idle geographical observations. Take the 50 most deprived of England’s 152 upper-tier local authorities, and we find that 45 of them have no grammar schools at all. In fact, fewer than 10 per cent of grammar schools exist in this most deprived third of our local authorities. As to those authorities with the most pupils eligible for Free School Meals, none in the top ten have a single grammar school. It’s clear that grammar schools are rare in the most deprived areas of the country. But this should not be seen as a natural consequence of grammar schools’ existence. Instead, it’s a relatively recent development. In 1959, when 40 per cent of 15-year-old pupils were in grammar schools, and 60 per cent of 17-year-old pupils, every selective school had a wide range of intake. It’s striking, however blunt the metric, that back then almost half of grammar school pupils were the children of manual workers – and in Yorkshire 60 per cent were. The Crowther Report of the same year observed that ‘the grammar school…is socially a pretty fair cross-section of the population. It is highly important that it should remain so.’

Times have changed. With grammar schools existing in only certain parts of the country, the availability of educational excellence without financial cost has lured parents into their catchment areas. This almost exclusively means that those families with enough money and freedom to move house can shimmy up close to the most desirable schools. House prices in these areas have risen sharply as a result; and this influx of money because of schools – not jobs – has distorted the demographic of surrounding communities. These conclusions were well documented in an important report by the Centre for Policy Studies last year. The report also found, however, that the ‘attainment gap between rich and poor at grammar schools is just 4.3 per cent, but over 25 per cent at all schools.’ In addition, it contains the striking fact that in three London local authorities that have grammar schools, all secondary pupils in that area attend a school rated good or outstanding. In the twenty-first century, then, it’s not clear that grammar schools would – as that well-worn complaint runs – leave all the rest behind.

As it is, the establishment of middle-class enclaves around grammar schools is unquestionably a bad thing, obscuring their commitment to teaching those most able academically, irrespective of background. This goal can only be reached if such schools are geographically available to all. This is a problem that the new proposals must overcome: if the new ‘satellite’ schools are geographically and logistically bounded by proximity to current grammar schools – and the perhaps imbalanced society that lives in that area – the positive improvements they could make are trapped by community and county borders. To really test the waters, and see whether grammar schools would change deprived areas for the better or worse, the government needs to range beyond the existing, well-entrenched confines of the sector.

Attention, too, must turn to the point of selection itself. It is not obvious that the 11-plus – as hammered out on the anvil of post-war pragmatism by Rab Butler in 1944 – is supple and broad enough to privilege raw academic potential over test-specific tutoring. It is certainly the case that the portion of society which can pay for extra-curricular education is currently at an advantage; but this problem need only make the setting of viable tests difficult, not an outright impossibility. It is encouraging, in this regard, that Hinds requires new schools to engage more closely with local primaries about the process and format of selection to ensure that all are in a position to apply. One further improvement would be to make it easier for students to move into these schools and – if circumstances suggest that it be for the better – out of them in later years.

All of these matters are riven with controversy, bias and anecdote – but these fundamental arguments about education need to be had. If they are kicked into the long grass, we are simply left with the manifest iniquity of our present system. We can only put paid to the present postcode lottery either by allowing new areas to open new selective schools, should local parents and authorities desire them, or by banning such schools in their entirety. All would agree that ‘social mobility’ – if it is to be understood in the terms of a society in which a good education does influence socio-economic outcome – is fast-tracked by an excellent education. Whatever this process should look like, it must surely be one equally available to any community in the country.

David Butterfield is a Fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge