Adam is a Senior Researcher for the Conservatives on the London Assembly. He writes in a personal capacity.
Last week, the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan MP, authorised the creation of England’s first ‘new’ grammar school for nearly 50 years. While this is not strictly a new grammar school per se, and is simply an extension of an existing school, it has been met with much fanfare. For many, grammar schools conjure up the image of a better England, one where social mobility rapidly improved and the top positions in society were open to those from the lower classes. Prime Ministers Harold Wilson, Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher all attended grammar schools, and that fact that grammar schools are now in serious decline is a matter of concern for many.
Social mobility is a particularly pernicious problem in modern Britain. Official figures demonstrate that the lowest earners in society have seen very little wage growth over the last decade, with only one in eight reporting such. In 2010, more A-level students from poorer backgrounds went to the top-third of universities than they do currently. Social mobility in Britain has at best stalled. But would more grammar schools remedy this?
Grammar schools are certainly popular. A YouGov poll found that 53 per cent of the public back the creation of new grammar schools, and over half think that these schools would be good for social mobility. The Government’s decision to allow existing grammar schools to expand their operations is partly based upon this popularity. Unfortunately, public faith in the ability of grammar schools to improve social mobility is probably misplaced.
Last year, the proportion of grammar school pupils eligible for free school meals was 2.7 per cent, compared to the national average of 15.7 per cent. Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that poorer children are much less likely to attend grammars than the wealthiest. So even though grammars top the state school league tables, this can be largely attributed to the socio-economic background of their pupils and the educational advantages that come with this.
A report by the Sutton Trust found that attending a grammar school at best delivered a negligible grade bonus per subject on what that pupil could expect to receive given their background. While the report indicated that there was no justification for the abolition of grammar schools, the evidence suggested that this lack of grade bonus means that there is also little justification for their expansion.
Evidence from the post-war decades indicates that the surge in social mobility during that period was largely due to a structural shift in the economy. Britain moved from an industrial to a post-industrial economy – with the surge in white collar jobs and average incomes such a transition brings. It is regularly ignored that perhaps the greatest surge in educational attainment occurred after grammar school numbers had begun to decline. There are now over ten times as many undergraduates as there were in 1962 and children from poorer backgrounds are much more likely to participate in higher education.
It is for this reason that Michael Gove, when he was Education Secretary, argued that selection is not necessary for a successful education system. Many of those nations with more successful education systems than ours, such as Finland, South Korea and Japan, do not practice selection.
In a globalised economy, with fierce competition from international workers, it is not enough that a small portion of the population benefits from a good education. The Government must both ensure that the overall performance of all pupils is raised and that support is given to our most able pupils within this non-selective environment. While the current academies programme helps with the former, they do not cater to the latter.
Recent improvements in school choice have encouraged the development of alternative school models. One of them in particular, University Technical Colleges (UTCs), highlights how academic rigour could be better sought within a non-selective system. UTCs are non-selective technical schools for those aged 14-18 who want to specialise in the STEM subjects. They give pupils the option to attend a specialist school when they decide upon their subject choices in Year 9.
UTC pupils still receive a broad education up to age 16, albeit from specialist teachers in high-class facilities. The real specialisation occurs post-16, where those looking to pursue a career in science or engineering develop their skills in a high-quality environment. This model allows for true schools specialisation within a non-selective system.
A similar model should be developed for those pupils who want to pursue an academic or professional career. This wouldn’t stop pupils from making this decision at a later date, but it would give an option for state pupils in Year 9 to focus on the more academic subjects. These new Grammar Academies, as they might be called, would offer highly academic teaching and rigorous examinations, such as the IB or IGCSEs. The key aims of these schools would be to get as many state pupils into Russell Group universities as possible and boost social mobility.
Grammar schools served a purpose in a society where the top jobs were limited by a less globalised economy. In modern Britain, where we are competing at every level with myriad developed and developing countries, it is no longer enough to rely on a small cohort of private and grammar educated pupils to lead our economy. We need an education system that both raises up the many and strives to get as many pupils from poorer backgrounds into the top universities. Grammar Academies could very well be a vehicle to secure these top places and kick-start Britain’s stalled social mobility. Traditional grammar schools are certainly not.