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Why Grammar schools in the UK don’t always mean social mobility

Claudia Loy outlines the underlying social issue that these schools represent.

Grammar schools are popular with parents and students, and are mostly good for the pupils that attend them. Education is thought of by most governments and by many people as the pillar for social mobility with many people believing that it is the ultimate leveller and the key to success both financially and socially. However, the reality doesn’t always pan out this way. Instead of promoting social mobility, there is evidence to suggest that grammar schools can actually have the opposite effect.

It can’t be denied that grammar schools help unlock and unleash the potential of those who attend them. In the past, technical schools in the UK never really gained momentum and secondary moderns didn’t work because they were full of people who left school with no qualifications.Grammar schools were the only viable option for bright but less well-off children in the past. This is, in the eyes of many, due to the learning environment that exists in these schools.

At grammar schools you’re pushed more academically to achieve your potential and you’re in an environment where competition not only exists but is actively encouraged. There is also intrinsically something logical about streaming by ability because our society encourages competition. In the same way that a football team is decided by ability, why shouldn’t schools be able to do the same? But what about the child who has a bad day in the 11+? Is it fair that they must undertake their education at a school with a 35% A to C rate at GCSE rather than a school with 85%? Depending on where you live, this could be the reality of the situation.

People often look back at the past with rose-tinted spectacles and the debate on Grammar Schools is no exception. Many look back with nostalgia at the glory days of Grammar Schools when 50% of people benefited from them. But in reality, those days are over and now it’s only 5%. Instead, we need to focus on improving comprehensive schools. The comprehensive system is doing well in London because in areas with a high population and fewer grammar schools, the comprehensives tend to be better but those in rest of the country are, to use the government’s phrase in 2016, ‘left behind.’

The problem with an education system that includes grammar school education is what happens to the pupils who are ‘left behind.’ In 2016, Theresa May said that the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils is reduced to almost zero for children in selective schools but what about the attainment of those in comprehensives who would have flourished at grammars but narrowly missed out due to social factors?

These social factors arise from social engineering for the 11+ exams instead of real academic selection. Often the children who pass and get this quasi-private education for free are the ones who could have afforded private education in the first place. Statistics show that a student from a pupil class background has a 50% chance of getting into a grammar school and a pupil from a working-class background has a 10% chance. Why? Because sharp-elbowed ‘middle-class’ parents are moving into areas with these schools because they can afford to and giving their children private tuition because they can afford to.

But this policy is an exception rather than the rule and arguably more needs to be done to close the social gap. It could be argued that by building more grammar schools you would give more poor children a chance to flourish at grammar school. It’s basic supply and demand - if you limit the supply of grammar schools, you’ll get people with a vested interest in going there.

In doing this, however, you simultaneously make the situation worse for those who just miss out because their learning environment will gradually deteriorate when you take more and more talented pupils out of it.

Will things change? Even though the vast majority of parents’ children won’t get into these schools, a policy to ban them would not be a good move politically. In the same way that many traditionally ‘working class’ people believe that billionaires should be taxed less even though statistics show that it is very rare to become one, grammar schools are popular because they stand for hope and aspiration.

These policies work and get through parliament by appealing to that very aspiration because it is what drives people. Grammar schools have not been abolished in the past 50 years because judging people on academia is seen as having merit. Politically, the reason that these schools enjoy popular support is because of people’s belief it will benefit them or their family.

As a parent and as an individual it is hard to disagree with excellence in the classroom being rewarded in this way but unless we can identify a way in which grammar schools can provide genuine social mobility, their selection process seems unfair and counter-productive for society as a whole. This process of academic selection needs to be reformed if the schooling system in the UK is to become the real beacon for social mobility that we often presume it is.


Edited By: Josh Reidelbach





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