May’s message to the 75%: ‘Know your place – social mobility’s only for the top 25%’
Prime Minister Theresa May says more grammar schools are essential for social mobility. That is nonsense, of course, evidence shows grammars weren’t the agents of social mobility they were claimed to be. And the few that remain still aren’t given the low number of disadvantaged children that broach their doors.
But leave that aside, what does May’s statement tell us about how she views social mobility? If increasing the number of grammar schools is essential for this, as she claims, then it is a route only accessible for the 25% at the top of the ability range. The remaining 75% would be prevented from travelling. And that would be decided on the results of a couple of short tests, tests for which children can be coached and tutored, taken at age 11.
It appears, then, the 75% must know their place: social mobility isn’t for them. That is the implication of May’s insistence that more grammars are essential to shove people up the social ladder.
The Department for Education insists creaming off pupils will not affect schools who lose their top-performing pupils. Any new or expanding grammars must take measures to help schools who educate the 75%. But grammars, like selective independent schools, have no expertise in teaching middle- and low-attainers. Neither have they much experience in dealing with challenging pupils – they can just expel them. To suggest that grammars have much to offer the entire intake of non-selective schools is patronizing.
But let’s return to social mobility and May’s implication that it’s something that isn’t so important for the 75%. Perhaps May thinks those who aren't disadvantaged or who aren't 'just about managing' are already comfortably situated on the social ladder. But social mobility can go down as well as up. That’s what we’re seeing now with the first generation of young people more likely to be poorer than their parents.
Extending selection at 11 will not alter this – it’s likely to make it worse. Telling 11 year-olds that some of them are bright enough to attend so-called centres of excellence while the majority aren’t quite so bright and can be sent to centres of not-quite excellence is not only divisive but a waste of talent. It sends out a message to the unchosen 75% that they are somehow less worthy, less capable and less regarded. And this holds whether they're disadvantaged, just about managing, or advantaged.
They should know their place.
NOTE: Education’s role in social mobility is actually limited. That's something consecutive schools ministers have refused to recognise. Placing all responsibility for social mobility on schools allows politicians to sidestep their responsibilities to set up policies which help alleviate poverty.