Yesterday, Damian Green made a case for new grammar schools on this site. Tomorrow, John Bald will probe the history of the dispute about them – and where we should go from here. As many readers will know, ConservativeVoice is currently campaigning for more. And on Friday, I hope to wrap up this mini-series on whether new grammars should be opened or not by writing myself.
Since there is no shortage of Tory voices calling for new grammars, it is opportune to give space on ConservativeHome to at least one that is opposed to the proposal. And as readers will see below, there are quite a few around. However, I have not succeeded in finding one to put their case on this site – largely due to the short notice that I gave.
At any rate, I am simply going to summarise their arguments myself below – in the absence of anyone else being willing or able to do so. I hope that in doing so their case is put fairly. As I say, I will put my own view on Friday. In the meantime, the case against new grammars seems to me to break down into four main parts, only one of which is specific to Conservatives.
- Grammar schools are bad for social mobility. This is essentially the case put by David Willetts in his wave-making speech on opportunity during the last Parliament. “The chances of a child from a poor background getting to a grammar school in those parts of the country where they do survive are shockingly low,” Willetts said, backing his claim up with statistics about the percentage of grammar school pupils on free school meals. The then Shadow Education Secretary went on to argue that changes in family structure now ensure that the 11 plus is no longer capable of fairly identifying which children are suitable for a grammar school education.
- Grammar schools did little for social mobility in the first place. According to Natasha Porter and Jonathan Simons of Policy Exchange, only 0.3 per cent of pupils who left grammar schools with two A-levels during the post-war period were from the unskilled working class. (Nor, they add, were the grammars always successful: in 1959, when grammars educated the top 20 per cent or so of the cohort, nearly 40 per cent of these pupils failed to pass more than three O-levels. This school of thought holds the driver of post-war social mobility was not grammar schools but post-war prosperity – and the new white-collar jobs that it helped to create.
- Selective areas produce worse results than non-selective ones. But is social mobility really the be-all-and-end-all of this debate? What about the results in selective areas overall? The supporters of grammars have no recourse there, argues Chris Cook – now of Newsnight, then of the Financial Times and formerly an adviser to Willetts. Cook has produced a battery of statistics on the debate, one of which shows that, once “primary school performance, poverty, ethnicity, special needs, age and other stuff” are taken into account, areas with grammar schools don’t perform especially well.
- Finally, the Conservatives should think less about the top 25 per cent of pupils and think more about the 0ther 75 per cent. This argument is often deployed at Tories by their political opponents, but its crucial arena is within the Party itself. Although Michael Gove intimated early in this Parliament that he was open to new grammar schools, none have been forthcoming – and there little expansion has been allowed to date of existing grammars. The former Education Secretary, like his successor, clearly believes that selection is less popular than the supporters of grammars schools claim.
There are subsidiary arguments: that grammars place primary schools under pressure to train pupils to pass the eleven plus, but I have stuck to the main ones.