Theresa May’s policy to expand academic selection by allowing grammar schools to expand and other schools to select some of their pupils is an exercise in Orwellian double think.
On the Radio 4 Today programme this morning Justine Greening tied herself up in knots trying to argue that grammar schools represented increased choice, an argument which falls apart when you consider one fundamental, and uncomfortable truth, which is that, for those children who fail the 11+, there is little or no choice at all.
All the Government’s talk of a meritocracy is swept away when the facts are considered.
Grammar schools are not, and never have been, a vehicle for social mobility
Grammar schools are not, and never have been, a vehicle for social mobility. There is no evidence that grammar schools provide a route for poor, academically able children to achieve better life chances. In nearly all grammar schools fewer than 10% of pupils are eligible for free school meals. In 98 of the 164 grammar schools it is fewer than 3% and in 21 fewer than 1%.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that deprived children are significantly less likely to go to a grammar school than their more advantaged peers, even when they are they achieve the same academic levels aged 11. Nor have grammar schools ever been a vehicle for social mobility – even in their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s a pitiful 0.3% of grammar school pupils with two A-levels were from the skilled working class.
These inequalities of birth, exacerbated by academic selection, continue throughout life. The average hourly wage difference between the richest 10% and the poorest 10% of earners in grammar school areas is over £4 more than in non-selective areas. But the blight caused by academic selection at age 11 is not just economic – the damage done to ‘11+ failures’ can last throughout life, affecting self-worth, ambition and confidence.
Theresa May seeks to get around these uncomfortable truths with a bucket-load of Orwellian double speak. Accusing opposition to the expansion of grammar schools of ‘dogma’ (she should look in the mirror here), in the name of ‘choice’ she will argue that an increase in selection is part of her drive to a meritocracy. She will also seek to sweeten the pill by imposing quotas on the number of poor children attending grammar schools.
So, what is it to be, Theresa? Selection by ability as defined by a discredited and outdated 11+ for which most children are privately coached? Or social selection on the basis of family income? Or a toxic mixture of both? I think we should be told.
Theresa May seeks to get around these uncomfortable truths with a bucket-load of Orwellian double speak
I want to reset the debate over this proposal. Instead of focusing on an increase in grammar schools, I want to highlight the other consequence – the increase in secondary modern schools – even if they are not called that name. Years of research have shown that all children do best in schools with mixed intakes, where children of different social class, different cultures and different dispositions learn not just from their teachers but from each other. Children do not make linear progress; those who appear to be falling behind academically can, a few years later, transform their academic prospects.
The worst thing any education system can do to any child is to tell them, aged 11, that they are not worthy of a place in a prestigious school, and that their life ambitions must be circumscribed by their failure, on one day, to pass a test – which many of them, those without parents with the means to buy private coaching – have not been prepared for.
I know this to be true from personal experience. I grew up in a big Catholic family of eight children. Six of us passed the 11+, two did not. Both 11+ ‘failures’, despite the best efforts of my parents, felt just that: failures. The consequences of a test, taken on one day, have lived with them for the rest of their lives, affecting their self-confidence and self-worth. Both are highly intelligent, professionally successful adults, but both freely admit that they live with the scar of a label put, metaphorically, around their necks when they were children.
Is that what Theresa May wants to recreate in her meritocratic society?
Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)