David Cameron warned his backbenchers before the 2010 election that their enthusiasm for grammar schools would turn into an “electoral albatross” for Labour to hang around Tory necks.
Apparently undeterred, Conservative MPs have struck once again with a campaign to bring back selective state schools, prompting a re-run of the tortured debate about class, opportunity and social mobility that has dogged British politics for 40 years.
Grammar schools, which were mostly abolished by Labour’s 1976 Education Act, occupy a special place in British nostalgia. Despite strong evidence from educationalists that grammars were not effective promoters of social mobility, those from poorer backgrounds who did win places have unrelentingly extolled the schools’ virtues as beacons of academic excellence and social levellers.
The latest call for a new wave of grammars has come from the grassroots organisation Conservative Voice, and has the backing of at least 70 MPs including the ex-defence secretary Liam Fox, former leadership challenger David Davis and Graham Brady, who chairs the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers. Meanwhile, the Tory leadership, including the education secretary Nicky Morgan and her predecessor Michael Gove, remain defiantly against the expansion of grammars.
Enthusiasts for these schools — which filter applicants according to results in an “11-plus” test of writing, maths and problem-solving taken at the age of 11 — say they help to propel poorer children into the sort of rigorous education offered at academically selective independent institutions.
“What we know without any doubt is that the children who get to go to the best comprehensive schools in the country are largely selected by their parents’ ability to pay for a house in the catchment area of those schools,” said Mr Brady. “So, you can have comprehensive schools which are selecting entirely in many cases on parental income and the ability to pay for a house in the right area . . . or you can try to give some opportunity to people from all backgrounds by selecting on ability.”
However, although grammar schools are intended to improve access for low-income pupils, the evidence shows this is not the case. According to the Sutton Trust, a social mobility charity, only 2.7 per cent of grammar school entrants are eligible for free school meals, even though, on average, 18 per cent of UK pupils would fit into this category.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that more deprived children are significantly less likely to go to grammar schools than the most advantaged, even when they achieve equally good results aged 11. Put more simply, in the words of Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector of the schools regulator Ofsted, the 164 grammars remaining in Britain today are “stuffed full of middle-class kids”.
It is a sign of the schism in Tory thinking that some right-leaning educationalists are appalled by the new calls. Jonathan Simons, head of education at the Policy Exchange think-tank, which is close to the Tory party, feels that any expansion of grammars would be a “retrograde step”. He said: “The evidence is pretty unequivocal that the grammar schools of the 1950s took middle-class kids, and it always has been middle-class kids because the 11-plus is highly tutorable and more often than not it’s done by kids who went to independent schools or extremely good state primaries.”
He added that for the Tories, the politics of reintroducing grammar schools — and thus entrenching selective privilege — was “counter-productive”.
“There are some issues where ideology trumps evidence — all political parties have areas of nostalgia where there’s nothing that can be said or shown or demonstrated to make clear it’s not the right thing to do,” he said.
But while the arguments are well-trodden and the opinion poll evidence is mixed, the political landscape has changed. The UK Independence party, whose growing popularity ahead of the 2015 election worries Tory MPs, is staunchly in favour of grammar schools.
In an article for the Daily Express last month, Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, boasted that his was the only party calling to resurrect grammars as a “real, honest way of increasing learning from children with a multitude of different strengths” and ensuring that the top jobs were no longer “filled by public schoolboys who went to Oxbridge”. Mr Farage attended the London private school Dulwich College, though he skipped university and went straight to work in the City.
Several senior Conservatives have indicated their support for grammars, with Boris Johnson, the London mayor, saying last month that their decline had been a “tragedy” and that they were “great mobilisers and liberators of people”. Theresa May, home secretary, and Michael Fallon, defence secretary, have pushed for the creation of new satellite grammar schools in their constituencies in Berkshire and Kent.
With Mr Johnson and Ms May both contenders for the future Conservative leadership, the party’s debate on grammars — and the dangers of the electoral albatross — are likely to live on.
History lesson on selective education
Grammar schools have become a divisive issue in the British education debate, but existed for centuries before the controversies emerged. They first came to prominence in England in the 16th century, their name reflecting the early focus of the curriculum on Greek and Latin. The popularity of grammars grew during the Victorian era, but the modern grammar school was born in 1944 with the first ever nationwide 11-plus exam.
Over the next two decades, grammar schools flourished as a means of fostering academic excellence based on ability, rather than privilege. But amid heated debate in the mid-1960s about whether these selective schools had negative effects on the wider school system, the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson accelerated the conversion of English secondaries into comprehensives.
Anthony Crossland, Wilson’s education secretary, turned the closure of grammar schools into a war cry, making the infamous promise: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England.” But despite the foundation of comprehensives in leftwing politics, it was during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as education secretary in the early 1970s that the majority of grammar schools were abolished. Ever since then, the Tory party has periodically engaged in bouts of restive nostalgia for these institutions.
Currently, there are 164 grammar schools in England, spread across 36 local councils that refused to give up their selective policies. Although Labour legislation in the late 1990s banned the creation of state-funded selective schools, a quirk of the system means that existing schools can expand or form “satellite” institutions in nearby towns or boroughs.
So far, the coalition has resisted calls to increase selecive schooling, with former education secretary Michael Gove making clear that grammar schools were a “distraction from the most important thing”, which was to raise standards across all schools, regardless of their intake.
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