New grammars won’t be for bottom 10% - the government is ‘less interested’ in them

Janet Downs's picture

Grammar schools are essential for social mobility, supporters say.  That theory’s been debunked* but it doesn’t stop this claim from being repeated incessantly.

The latest manifestation of the social mobility myth is in The Times (13 August 2016) which says new grammars would be ‘limited to 20 in working-class areas’.   If grammars really help the poor to climb the greasy social ladder (which they don’t), this policy should benefit the most disadvantaged.  But a Whitehall source told The Times the new grammars wouldn’t be aimed at the poorest pupils:

This government will be far less interested in raising the bottom 10 per cent and more concerned about helping low and middle-income families — in-work families with a reliance on public services.”

The reasoning behind this policy (which hasn’t officially been announced and has a whiff of kite-flying about it) has been blown.  It’s nothing to do with a desire to help the disadvantaged but everything to do with chasing votes.   And there’s a condescending whiff about the statement – an implication that relying on public services is somehow second-rate.

The Whitehall statement is at odds with the expectation that new grammars would be required to accept a ‘significant proportion; of FSM pupils.   And a second suggestion says ‘strict catchment areas’, comprising mainly low and middle-income families, would apply – these could squeeze out the most-disadvantaged areas.  The implication is that only FSM pupils from ‘HardworkingFamilies’ would be welcome; those on Benefit Street wouldn’t be.

A Whitehall ‘source’ said new grammars would ‘mirror’ the London Academy of Excellence (LAE), the highly selective sixth form free school much-praised by ministers, but would cater for 11-18 year-olds.  But LAE wasn’t the most successful sixth-form in its local authority, Newham, in 2015.  At Brampton Manor Academy, 51% of sixth-formers gained AAB in two or more ‘facilitating’ subjects**.  At LAE, 24% did so. And LAE is not one of Newham’s five Outstanding state-funded schools with 16-18 provision.  It missed out on Ofsted’s top grade in March 2014 because ‘not enough’ students made expected progress.  In October 2014, LAE was accused of dropping students who weren’t ‘Russell Group ready’.

If the new grammars are to reflect LAE, they will only select those who gain the very highest scores in 11+ tests.  They won’t be Outstanding because not enough pupils will make expected progress.  And they might be accused of dumping any pupils who are later thought unlikely to achieve the highest GCSE or A Level grades.

It was parental anger at the unfairness of selection which did for most grammars back in the late 60s and early 70s.  Even the Conservatives realised it wasn’t a vote winner.  But now it might be – hence the cynical targeting of low- and middle-income families.  But those pining for more grammars should be careful what they wish for.

* Examples include Radio 4’s More or Less featuring Newsnight's policy editor, Chris Cook; Henry' Stewart's  'Eleven grammar school myths' , Chris Cook's article 'Why not bring back grammars?'  and Jonathan Simons, Policy Exchange, '5 reasons why a return to grammars  is a bad idea'.

**These are subjects favoured by ‘Russell Group’ universities.

APOLOGIES AND CORRECTION 17 September 08.30  The above article has been amended.  I had originally cited Nick Timothy, Theresa May's adviser and late of the New Schools Network, as the source of the quote above saying the Government was 'far less interested' in the bottom 10%.  This was not true.  The quotation came from an unnamed 'Whitehall source'.     I thank Mark Watson for pointing this out.





Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Arthur Harada's picture
Mon, 15/08/2016 - 14:22

Grammar school education helped the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, Neil Kinnock, Glenys Kinnock and the late Jo Cox to do better in life along with many other stalwarts of the Labour Party and then the likes of Diane Abbott ( sent her kids to private schools) and Hero Tony Blair attended a top rank public school. And where was Lord Mandy taught?
If I had 5p for every state teacher/head teacher criticising grammar schools but meanwhile ensuring their own offspring attend independent schools I would be able to stop buying lottery tickets.
One has to admit that in so many cases principles fly through the window when concerned about offspring 's education.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 15/08/2016 - 15:23

Arthur - Corbyn's nearly 70, Neil Kinnock is 74, Glenys Kinnock is 72.  They were educated at a time when the only access to exams were via grammar schools.  As soon as every state school offered exams the need for a separate school to prepare for exams was lost.

It's not the first time you've said you'd be able to accrue large sums of money if you'd been paid a tiny amount to every state teacher who criticised grammars who nevertheless sent their children to private schools.  But they are actually only a tiny number.  And the hypocritical actions of a few don't add up to an argument for selecting pupils at 11 into bright, not-so-bright and dim.


Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 16/08/2016 - 08:34

Jeremy Corbyn's academic record from his grammar school was not particularly impressive, neither was Neil Kinnock's, and John Major's was even worse. David Mellor who did go up to Cambridge from Swanage GS was pretty scathing about the quality of his secondary education.

A list of Oxbridge graduate politicians from comps would be too long to list.

Mark Watson's picture
Fri, 16/09/2016 - 17:32

If anyone's interested in facts (as opposed to ideologically driven fantasy), the central plank on which this story is based is complete rubbish.
Janet claims that the quote in the Time about "the bottom 10%" came from "Nick Timothy, one of the PM’s special advisers and formerly director of the taxpayer-funded charity, New Schools Network".
Unfortunately for her, if you actually go and have a look at the article in the Times it makes clear that the quote came from an unidentified “Whitehall source”. The story in the Times comes from an earlier story in TES which says the same thing.
So it's not really an insight into official government policy at all.
I've pointed this out to Janet on another thread, but she seems curiously unwilling to recognise what is a rather embarrassing mistake ...

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 17/09/2016 - 08:28

Mark - thank you for pointing this out.  I apologise for not checking the Times article sooner but I was not a registered user and my print copy had disappeared into recycling.  I have now become a registered user and have checked the Times article.  It says:

“It is unlikely they will try to bring in thousands of grammar schools,” the source told the Times Educational Supplement. “Instead it will be a handful here and there, in normal working-class areas. This government will be far less interested in raising the bottom 10 per cent and more concerned about helping low and middle-income families — in-work families with a reliance on public services.”

You are correct, then, that the 'Whitehall source' was not Nick Timothy.  I shall amend the article above accordingly.  Nevertheless, the fact that it came from a 'Whitehall source' does show an insight into official government policy.  Unless, of course, you're suggesting the Whitehall source is lying.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 17/09/2016 - 08:55

Mark - I should be grateful if you could provide a link to the thread on Schools Improvement Net where I said the quote was from Nick Timothy.  I can then update the thread to say the quote came from a Whitehall source who was considered knowledgeable enough Government strategy to be cited by the Times.   

Mark Watson's picture
Tue, 20/09/2016 - 11:40

Sorry but this is ridiculous. How can you purport to write an article which specifically attributes a quote to a senior Government adviser, all based on an article in the Times which you apparently didn't even read? You're trying to represent yourself as someone 'speaking the truth' and yet this flippant regard to the actual truth and the facts simply underlines that you come to every story from a point of prejudice and try to twist things to suit your narrative.

Looking at this article now, even after you have corrected the blunder in the second paragraph:

1. The Times article actually says "Plans for new grammars will amount to only about 20 selective schools in working class areas, it was claimed yesterday". Note the rather important use of the words "it was claimed yesterday". This claim came from an unnamed Whitehall source. I don't know who this was, what their motivation was and whether they had any basis for these statements. And the important thing is NEITHER DO YOU. It may have been a senior policy wonk working very closely with the PM, it might have been a disgruntled junior member of staff reporting the equivalent of water-cooler gossip. Both the Times and TES did the responsible journalistic thing of reporting the story whilst making clear the quotes were uncorroborated. You, however, take these quotes and represent them as Government policy.

2. Just to labour this point, your fourth paragraph refers to the policy not having been officially announced. That's because it's not policy is it? It's a quote from an unnamed source. How do you possibly think you can take such a quote and say it is official policy?

3. You've accepted that the quote did NOT come from Nick Timothy, and yet the fourth and fifth paragraphs of the article still mistakenly refers to "Timothy's statement". Is this another example of your oversight and the importance you attach to the truth, or is it because being accurate and saying "the unnamed source's statement" makes the points you're trying to make sound less relevant?

4. Following up on this, now we're all agreed that the quote didn't come from Nick Timothy, do you still really want to say "there's a condescending whiff about Timothy's statement"? For all you know the quote came from a junior civil servant who stridently believes grammar schools should be abolished. When you don't know who made a statement it gets hard to ascribe a motive or their frame of mind isn't it?

5. You refer to "parental anger at the unfairness of selection" in your last paragraph and also start the piece off by lamenting that the claim that grammar schools are essential for social mobility is being repeated incessantly. Indeed you proudly trumpeted the statistic on the Schools Week website that only 38% of the population supported the building of new grammars ( However the facts (note that's the actual real facts) don't back you up at all. What that survey actually showed was that the public was strongly in favour of selective education. They're not angry at its unfairness, they don't think it's bad for social mobility and a massive majority of them would send their children to a grammar if they could. In that Schools Week thread I've explained the full results, and why your attempt to pick one figure totally misrepresents the results, but I'd encourage people to go to the source, read the full results and make their own mind up -

I just want to end this by making clear I'm not convinced that having more grammar schools and increasing selective education is the right way forward. Instinctively I would prefer to have excellent non-selective schools available to everyone. However it's not a simple issue and what we need is good reasoned debate which objectively considers and discusses the merits of both options. Polemic diatribes like this article, based on mistaken journalism and the twisting of statistics, does not help anyone.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/09/2016 - 12:58

Mark - thank you for letting me know I hadn't removed all references to Nick Timothy.  They have now been deleted.

It is hardly likely The Times and TES would have cited the source if they thought the source was unreliable.  That would be misleading.

You are right that the grammar schools policy hadn't been officially announced on 13 August, the date of the Times article.  But it was already known that May was 'expected' to allow grammar expansion  (for example, Guardian article dated 7 August).  At the time of my writing the above, any proposals hadn't been officially announced and appeared at the time to be kite flying.   The publication of the Green Paper, 'Schools that work for everyone', shows the proposals weren't testing the water but preparing the way for an official announcement.

I'm surprised you say the facts don't back me up about support for new grammars and that I am 'twisting' statistics.   The YouGov poll is quite clear: only 38% support the building of new grammars.   At the same time, there was a majority saying they would send their child to a grammar if s/he passed the 11+.  I discuss this anomaly here.   As far as social mobility  and grammars was concerned, the YouGov poll revealed that 35% thought they were good for social mobility, 27% said they made no difference, 20% didn't know and 19% thought they were bad.   For a dispassionate and unbiased account of the effects of selection on social mobility, see FullFact.

Re 'parental anger'.  I was referring to the past.  It was parental anger that caused most LAs to become comprehensive.   You have taken this historical fact as if I was talking about parental anger today.  The rage against selection seen in the late 60s and early 70s has subsided.  That's because the majority of parents no longer have to face the unfairness of their children being divided into 'bright' (the minority selected for 'special' schooling) and the not-so-bright (the majority sent to schools perceived as second-best) at age 11.



Mark Watson's picture
Tue, 20/09/2016 - 15:31

You really don't get it do you?

Yes, I have no doubt that the Times and TES thought the source was reliable, but the point is that their pieces made clear that what was being reported was not official Government policy but were quotes from an unnamed source. Even given the mauling that you've had to do to your original article you are still happily misrepresenting the situation. Why have you referred to it as "The Whitehall statement"? If you asked 100 people what they took the phrase "a Whitehall statement" to mean I would suggest that an overwhelming majority would refer to it being an official statement from the Government. How many people do you think would understand it to refer to an unattributed statement from an unnamed individual who happens to work in Whitehall? Having got carried away with your line of attack, you then somehow take this unattributed statement and say that it's actually the secret and unspoken reasoning behind the Government's actual policy. Can I just ask you a simple question - what proof do you have that the Government's policy has anything to do with this? I'd point out that no other reputable organisation, and certainly not the Times or TES, has made this leap.

Yet another example (if one was needed) - you say that this Whitehall source said "new grammars would ‘mirror’ the London Academy of Excellence ". Just go back and look at the Times piece again. Does it say "would"? Or instead does it say "could"? Just one letter difference but wow what a change that makes to the statement. The source was saying that one of the possibilities on the table was to look at the LAE (presumably one option amongst a number of others) - again you've jumped all over this and gone from it being a possibility to being incontrovertible fact.

I would also question your selective use of the quote from the Times. Your opinion piece says that "the policy SHOULD benefit the most disadvantaged" and that "it’s nothing to do with a desire to help the disadvantaged". Don't you think in light of those two statements it would have been appropriate to use the first part of the unnamed source's quote which said in reference to bringing in new grammar schools "it will be a handful here and there, in normal working-class areas". I agree that the bit about new schools being located in 'normal working class areas' doesn't exactly chime with your claims but then that's kind of the point I'm making.

When I refer to you 'twisting' statistics, what I'm referring to is things like the above paragraph. You go to a source and then very selectively only quote those bits that you think support you, and anything that disagrees with your position is discarded. Where it is even clearer is this business about the YouGov poll. You quite correctly say that only 38% support the building of new grammars. But you don't put it into context do you? And the reason you don't is that it wouldn't support your position.

By saying "only 38% support the building of new grammars" and leaving it at that, you're implying that 62% are against grammars, or at least oppose building new ones. Sounds like the YouGov survey supports you doesn't it. Only it doesn't. Why don't you ever actually quote the full picture from the survey:
38% want to create grammar schools
17% want to keep current grammar schools but not create more
23% want to scrap all grammar schools
22% don't know

So another way of presenting the YouGov results is to say "the most popular option by far (over 1.6 times as popular as the next option) was that there should be more grammar schools created".

Mark Watson's picture
Thu, 06/10/2016 - 10:06

It's actually quite depressing that you put yourself forward as a champion of the truth, and an antidote to the lies and misrepresentations put out by the Government and academy trusts (AKA the Evil Empire), however when it is clearly pointed out that you are guilty of falsehoods and misrepresentations you simply choose not to respond.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.