Are grammar schools really worse for social mobility than poor-quality comprehensives or is the opposition they provoke due more to their unapologetic admissions process and assistance to the brightest in society? So is this really just jealousy? Now, with Theresa May’s reintroduction accompanied by reforms encouraging the admission of poorer pupils, do grammar schools still deserve their divisional status?
The ability of grammar schools to improve social mobility is nationally divisive. Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust writes, “there is no question that grammar schools are socially selective”. He cites that the proportion of children entitled to free school meals (a measure of poverty) in grammar schools is 3% compared with 18% in the boroughs they serve. This demonstrates that the very social group they claim to benefit are not being admitted. However, he acknowledges that “Through outreach, test preparation for all and contextual admission they could be reformed”.
Under Mrs May’s rule, new selective schools would have to meet access conditions such as taking a share of pupils from low-income backgrounds, which if rigorously enforced, should diminish the widely cited concern for the lack of poor students in grammar schools. Perhaps an obligatory admission of 18% free school meal pupils to reflect the local borough would satisfy the critics. Yet this may be easier said than done due to the tendency of parents to attempt to manipulate the system. Rebecca Allen of Education Datalab, a research group, correlates the opening of a new grammar school with a decrease in demand for the top local private schools and a rise in applications for nearby preparatory schools. This leads to the filling of grammars with ‘service-class’ children. Put in other words, not those dependent on an educational catalyst for a better life.
This is only part of the problem. According to the Education Policy Institute, by age eleven, poor children lag nearly ten months behind their peers in educational attainment and coupled with the fact that their competitors are likely to be privately tutored means 11-plus scores are rarely reflective of true potential or comparative ability. This does not bode well for social mobility.
However, again there may be a solution in Mrs May’s reforms. Another aspect of the aforementioned conditions for new selective schools is the setting up of a non-selective primary school, which if run nearly as well as the average grammar, could be another potential catalyst for bright low-income children to improve their lot.
Taking a broader view, and with Rebecca Allen’s prior point regarding the correlation between demand for private schools and existence of grammars in mind, it must be acknowledged that some form of selection will always take place within education. Although only 7% of children are privately educated, those 7% occupy 80% of the top jobs in the United Kingdom and this achievement gap is notorious across the country but less so in areas with high concentrations of grammars. Northern Ireland hosts 67 of the 230 remaining grammars. It is here that the achievement gap between private and state educated pupils is the smallest and where poor pupils are 50% more likely to make it to university than they are in Scotland (no grammar schools) and a third more likely than English pupils (163 grammars).
Indeed, the high standards achieved by grammars are not to be brushed aside easily. As the Schools Minister recently stated, grammar schools greatly diminish the achievement gap between pupils on free school meals and the rest with an achievement gap of 4.3 percentage points compared to a national difference of 27.8 percent.
A study by the Education Policy Institute found that pupils who attend grammar schools do no better than similar pupils in high performing comprehensives (those in the top 25% for value added). Yet top state schools always stream pupils by ability in core subjects (English, Maths and Science) meaning that high achievers are nevertheless taught in a selective system. Pupils are eventually separated by ability at university and in the job market so why deny the inevitable? Furthermore, a study by Bristol University found that the difference between a pupil attending a grammar and one at a comprehensive was worth four GCSE grades across eight GCSEs (at the cost of those not attending grammars being one grade worse off than if grammars did not exist).
So there is no question that grammars benefit the brightest to a greater degree than they hinder the rest. Moreover, Warwick University found that grammar schools benefit working-class children more than privileged children in terms of income mobility. On the other hand, it was also found that any boost to low income children was eliminated by the deterioration in achievement by the attendees of non-selective comprehensives, leading to the report concluding that there was little difference in the social mobility achieved by grammar and secondary modern schools. This similarly demonstrates that selective education benefits the brightest to a larger extent than it hinders others and that in terms of social mobility, there is little difference in overall achievement for the majority.
A reformed admissions process with the aim of increasing the attendance of free school meal pupils in accordance with Theresa May’s ‘access conditions’ for new grammars, means selective education has a chance to be a catalyst for social mobility. Yet the crux of this debate feels ideological. Should children go forward as one, with the brightest held back to help the majority? Or should those who can, be allowed to reach their potential and achieve?
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