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.