One of the most persistent arguments in favour of grammar schools is they allowed children to climb out of poverty. This is often (but not always) supported by those from a poor background who, fifty or sixty years ago, passed the 11+ and gained access to the only schools that offered exams: the grammars. These anecdotes ignore the underlying unfairness of a situation which selected a small number of bright poor children for an education which offered qualifications and left the majority from whatever background leaving school with none.
That was then, this is now. All 16 year-olds have access to exams so justifying selection by citing a system which divided children into those who would study for qualifications and those that would not is obsolete.
Another argument is that grammars allowed pupils to transcend their working class roots. This argument is often confused with the one above assuming that ‘working class’ and ‘poverty’ were synonymous. But this wasn’t necessarily the case. Men in traditional working class occupations such as manufacturing often earned more money that middle class jobs like office work. But this argument assumed (and still does assume) that leaving the working class is something every right-minded person would aspire to. But that ain’t necessarily so.
In the supposed golden heyday of grammars, even earlier back to the Victorian times, the transition from working class to middle class could mean separation and alienation. This is a rich theme in literature: Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’, Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’, D H Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’, Tony Harrison’s ‘Them and Uz’ and ‘Book Ends’.
Richard Hoggart’s ‘The Uses of Literacy’ devotes one chapter to the ‘uprooted and anxious’: those born in the working class but who became middle class. In the words of this reviewer, Hoggart argued the education system* post the 1944 Butler Education Act sifted ‘the most critically-minded (and thus, potentially radical) youngsters from the working-class, to be groomed by the grammar-school system towards bourgeois ideals’. Tony Warren, creator of Coronation Street cited ‘The Uses of Literacy’ as inspiration for the series. The first episode included a plot-line about a young Ken Barlow returning from university pursued by his middle-class girlfriend. The gap between the undergraduate and his Uncle Albert was profound.
This is not outdated. Research published this year found working class boys were aware that being aspirational meant moving away from their locality, ‘a place in which they had tremendous pride’. The researcher wrote ‘the boys’ familial lives were grounded in emotional commitment, social ties, and collective responsibility for the vulnerable’.
As argued above, ‘poverty’ and ‘working class’ are often used to mean the same thing. This is misleading. In any case, the old perception of the class system as immortalised in the John Cleese/Two Ronnies sketch is outmoded. The Social Class Based on Occupation (SC) index lists five classes one of which is split into two. But assigning a class to someone based on occupation is unreliable. Where, for example, would an owner of a small business, say a corner shop, be placed in this hierarchy? Would s/he be rank 2: managerial and technical? Or rank 3N: skilled non-manual? How about partly-skilled, rank 4? One thing is clear – s/he wouldn’t be ranked 5: unskilled occupations. Whatever the ranking, our small business owner may or may not be classed ‘disadvantaged’ and eligible to claim free school meals (FSM) for children. This is decided on income alone.
The Great British Class Survey 2013 measures class in a different way taking into account wealth, social and cultural capital. At the bottom (Rank 7) is the 'Precariat, or precarious proletariat' - the poorest, most deprived class with low social and cultural capital. Perhaps it’s this class the Government has in mind when it talks of disadvantaged children. But not everyone eligible for FSM comes from a background of low social and cultural capital – it is insulting as well as misleading to assume those with low income also have such poor capital.
The 2013 survey ranks the traditional working class at 5. This comprises a group which scores low on social and cultural capital but is not 'completely deprived' because they have 'reasonably high house values'. The average age of this group is 66. The argument that grammar schools increase the chances of working class social mobility is redundant when applied to this definition of traditional working class. It's unlikely many in this age group would have young children.
The social class mobility argument for selection is flawed. It is flawed because it didn’t apply to the majority of children during the alleged golden years of grammars – it plucked out a few and left the many, poor or not, to leave school with no exams. It is flawed because it conflates ‘poverty’ with ‘class’. It is flawed because the traditional working class no longer exists. And it's flawed because it implies those who pass two short tests at age 11 are more deserving of social mobility than the rest. In any case, education's role in social mobility is limited - implementing social and social policies aimed at making society more equal would be more effective. Separating children at age 11 into first-tier and second-tier does not do that.
ADDENDUM An updated take on the John Cleese/Two Ronnies sketch criticises the academic/vocational divide.
*England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland retained its own system as it does today.