The public wants more grammar schools and the academics who oppose them are ignoring some of their arguments in their favour, says Nick Hillman
More than half a century after they were all meant to have been killed off, England still has 163 grammar schools. Those that are left are like a baddie in a film that just would not die. This film has lots of sequels too, as there have been many creative attempts to kill off the remaining grammar schools in new ways, most notably perhaps Tony Blair’s change to the law to allow local referendums on their closure.
But the schools just won’t disappear, as we explain in a new paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute. In fact, the schools keep on thriving. Demand outstrips supply and they have expanded in any way they can, like increasing their sixth forms, where more selection is allowed.
Meanwhile, the academic experts keep producing the same old arguments saying grammars are bad for academic performance. They say the presence of grammar schools lowers the average performance of all pupils in an area. They also, quite rightly, point out the shortage of pupils entitled to free school meals at grammar schools.
But they lose the argument about whether the remaining schools should close every single time. Indeed, they are currently losing so completely that a dedicated government fund has been established to pay for grammar school expansion.
One reason why they keep losing is that more of the public support grammar schools than oppose them. Why is this? I think there are three reasons.
Perhaps we should move to a system of comprehensive universities?
First, people either experienced the grammar school system themselves or know people who did and want some of the benefits for their own children. I have two young children at state schools in Buckinghamshire, which has grammar schools, so I hear this every day. I know the plural of anecdote is not evidence but you do not win political arguments by ignoring the reality of people’s lives. Moreover, as our report shows, in this case at least the anecdotes are not always wrong. For example, if you have a black or minority ethnic heritage, you are five times more likely to go to the University of Cambridge if you live in a selective area. That is such a staggeringly big difference that the clever-clever responses to the paper questioning the data have been unable to process it properly.
Second, many of the most vocal campaigners against grammar schools work in highly-selective institutions themselves. England has one of the most selective university entrance systems in the world, with a clear hierarchy of institutions. Our paper was quickly condemned by researchers working at some of those at the top of the tree, like Bath, UCL and Durham. That is fine. It is possible to think selection is wrong at 11 but right later up the age range. But that is not a generally debate we have and most of those who have condemned our output will not tell us when they think selection becomes acceptable. Is it 14 or 16 or 18 or only at postgraduate level? One problem is that our universities do far more academic research on schooling than they do on their own sector. This comes back to bite us on the bum when we condemn selection in schools but are silent about our own highly-selective admission systems in universities. There is another way. As we asked in another much less noticed publication, if comprehensive schools are right, perhaps we should move to a system of comprehensive universities?
Third, the selective nature of higher education is itself a driver of selection in schooling. Society judges the quality of a school by its ability to get pupils into selective higher education and employers recruit people disproportionately for their better-paid jobs from selective universities. If Comprehensive Future, another organisation that criticised our new paper, is serious about delivering a comprehensive future, why does it not focus its efforts on rooting out selection at 18, given that this is perhaps the single biggest driver of selection at 11? To deliver change effectively, it is generally best to start at the roots of a problem.
Grammar school opponents need to stop playing on one tiny part of the pitch
Anyone who criticises Iain Mansfield for the quality of his work does not know him. He is skilled at handling data, fearsomely intelligent and came to us armed with interesting arguments and wholly new unpublished data from the University of Cambridge. His report engages with much of the existing evidence on grammar schools but it was very open about only being interested in one question: whether grammar schools are good for university entrance. As a higher education think tank, it is not our job to write about schools except where they relate to higher education. So Iain’s paper should be read alongside other work rather than being regarded as the final word. But, as a think tank, it is our job to make people think and Iain’s paper does that even better than most of our other output.
As the recent TV drama on the Brexit campaign showed, the Remain side lost because they used old arguments in old ways. To win, grammar school opponents need to stop playing on one tiny part of the pitch with a tiny number of the same players and far away from the public and start engaging more with some bigger arguments.