The grammar school row has at least got
people talking about education. There is now broad agreement on the
centre-right on many issues: that there should be genuine parental choice
where all money – revenue and capital – follows the pupil; that
we must create a network of independent state-funded schools with the
freedom to employ their own staff, design their own curriculum and enforce
their own standards of discipline; and, that we desperately need to smash
down the barriers so that new school providers can easily provide a
The two Davids, Willetts and Cameron,
have forcefully made their case against creating more grammar schools,
and there is a group of genuine objectors who offer a powerful counter-argument
to this pledge. Both sides agree that the test of a good policy is that
it should help the poorest the most; both are motivated by a genuine
commitment to social mobility. But the pro-grammar lobby believes that
more, not less, academic selection is the way forward, and think the
Willetts/Cameron policy is both ineffective and profoundly un-conservative.
It is to this group of people that I want to make a centre-right case
against more selection.
The basic problem with our education
system is that there are simply not enough good school places to go
round, so good schools have to ration their places among those who want
them. That word ‘ration’ should set alarm bells ringing for conservatives,
but that’s what selection in this country is, whether it is academic,
geographical, religious or otherwise. Research (by Caroline Hoxby, for
example) suggests that market-based education reforms only drive up
standards across all groups if schools are restricted in their ability
to choose their intake. If schools can select there is a strong tendency
towards social segregation and unfairly distributed benefits.
So increasing powers of selection simply gives
in-demand schools the opportunity to screen out the hardest to help
pupils, leaving them to congregate in our infamous ‘sink’ schools.
More selection does nothing to increase the overall number of good school
places; it just distributes differently, and in a way in which the poorest
lose out most. We would not accept it if our best hospitals refused to
treat someone who, because of their poverty, was in poor health. We
should not accept such discrimination in our schools either.
In economic terms selection puts the interests
of producers above those of consumers. Anyone who believes in the power
of markets will immediately see the problem. Instead of competing with
one another to attract pupils, and thereby driving up standards, schools
get to choose who they admit. Good schools have no incentive to improve
and the bad schools get filled anyway, so they have no incentive to
get better either. Anyone who believes in competition, individual sovereignty
and equal opportunity – three profoundly conservative ideas – should
be appalled by this situation, which is why arguments about selection
lead only to a dead end.
Another tenet of conservatism is a commitment
to what works rather than to dogma, yet there are no instances of school
reform where introducing more selection has increased both excellence
and its equitable distribution. The Netherlands has been cited as showing
that school choice and selection are compatible, but the Dutch have
a ninety year old constitutional commitment to provide state support
to any parents who want to educate their children in a non-state school.
This basic right to supply education, and the fact their school system
has had time to mature into a properly functioning market, makes the
Netherlands exceptional. As a result there are more than enough good
school places and schools compete for pupils. Where selection does take
place it is more akin to sorting, with children matched to appropriate
schools. But to pretend this would be the case if more selection were
allowed in the UK is completely wrong. Perhaps it might in the future,
but only once a genuine market in good school places has developed.
Unfortunately we are probably decades away from achieving that lofty
The experiences of places like Sweden,
New Zealand the US serve as far better comparisons. In these countries,
where school choice schemes are still relatively new and there are lower
degrees of supply-side flexibility, the existence of school selection
has been shown to increase social segregation. These countries still
suffer, like we do, from a shortfall of good school places. Greater selection
becomes, in effect, more rationing.
Finally, I believe that those who want
more grammar schools are conflating teaching quality with academic selection.
Grammar schools are special not because they choose their pupils on
the basis of academic ability but because they use tried and tested
educational techniques, foster a spirit of excellence, and test all
pupils to their limits. These and other facets of a good education were
all but destroyed by the so-called "progressive" education
revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. Genuine reform which allows new providers
to enter the market and enables good schools to expand, combined with
a new commitment to the pursuit of excellence as practised in the remaining
grammars, is the best route to improvement. Increasing the supply of
good school places in this way – rather than focusing on different
ways to ration them – can raise educational standards for the many
and not the few.