UKIP wants a grammar school in every town. London Mayor Boris Johnson says scrapping grammars was a ‘real tragedy
’. Prince Charles lobbied ministers to reintroduce selection at 11
. Home Secretary Teresa May appears willing to consider support
for a grammar school’s ‘satellite’ in comprehensive Maidenhead. The clamour to bring back grammar schools is getting louder.
Much support for selection at 11 appears fuelled by a rosy-tinted view of grammar schools offering a leg up out of the working class for a few bright children. But post-war social mobility was not dependent on a grammar school education. It was encouraged by the hundreds of thousands of white-collar jobs (by definition ‘middle-class’) which didn’t require qualifications and jobs (many defined as ‘working class’) which paid enough for men* to get a mortgage. This turned them into ‘middle class’ property owners. The role paid by grammar schools in enabling post-war social mobility is exaggerated.
Grammar school supporters ignore the downside to selection at 11: the 75% of children who were sent to secondary modern schools. A tiny proportion went to technical schools but these institutions were few and the idea faded. If you didn’t pass the 11+ then it was the secondary modern, leave school at 15 with no qualifications.
But it would be different now, I hear people say. All children remain in school to at least age 16. And that’s going to rise. All children take exams. So it wouldn’t matter if children were segregated at 11, would it?
Yes it would. First there’s the evidence. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development which runs the triennial PISA tests found the best-performing countries in these tests tend to be those which do not segregate children academically. They delay selection until at least upper secondary (age 15/16).
has found that early selection and a number of 'public** selective schools' (as well as private schools with fees) 'amplify socioeconomic inequalities in performances between students'. In other words, they worsen the effect of socioeconomic background on pupils' results.
Third, there’s the unpalatable fact that grammar schools for the few mean secondary modern type schools for the rest. They won’t be called secondary moderns, of course. They will be high schools, colleges or academies. But they will still be regarded as secondary moderns. Creamed of the high ability pupils, they will offer courses deemed more ‘suitable’ for average and below-average pupils. They’ll offer more academic courses for any high-ability children discovered in their classrooms. But they will still be regarded as secondary moderns – second rank schools for second-rate children.
The message sent to children who don’t pass the 11+ is that they are failures. They aren’t ‘alpha’ children but ‘beta’, ‘gamma’ and ‘delta’. They have to have a particular kind of education – something ‘more suited’ for their lesser talents and abilities. That’s the message that would be given to three-quarters of eleven-year-old children in a system that selects at such a young age.
So let’s be clear what a call for reintroducing grammars means. It’s lobbying for the return of the secondary modern for the majority of children. It’s a proposal to demoralise three-quarters of our eleven year-olds. It’s a proposition which would label three-quarters of our future as second best.
Remember, then, the call to bring back grammars is a call to bring back secondary moderns.
*It was very difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to get a mortgage in the so-called Golden Age. Women who wanted credit needed their husband’s signature.
**'Public' in this context means 'state maintained' not 'Public' as in 'Public schools' like Eton.