Theresa May should take a look in the mirror on grammar schools

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)

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  1. I may totally be ignorant. But aren’t those against new selective schools saying that those who cannot afford private school and those who cannot get into the few grammar schools will have no choice at all? True social mobility and inclusion can only happen if there was only one type of school and distance and catchment never is enforced. A few more grammar schools will help more of those who are fighting to break free from being boxed in. Correct me.

  2. Yes, there is no evidence for grammar schools impr confirm education for all, only for those selected. We have the best schools in our history right now. (Media why don’t the you report the good news?) and news to let it settle down. Priority number one is attracting the best potential teachers into teaching

  3. Dr.Bousted’s argument do not stack up. It is true that grammar schools are nothing other than a drive to a meritocracy – this much is true. But, as with all arguments with a political ulterior motive, it is only a partial truth, and this is why.

    Dr.Bousted is partially right when she says the Grammar schools have never (much) boosted social mobility – but that is a very statistically vague claim.. Who *exactly* haven’t benefitted? I would argue that the vast majority of the working classes (probably) have not – in line with Dr. Bousted’s claims – but that a much higher number of lower-middle class children *HAVE* benefitted. Has she included this demographic in her analysis? No. These arguments against grammar schools are always based on this vague term of “working class,” but what does that mean, these days? The 100-year-old notion that we have a distinctly stratified social structure in the UK is a political lie that both Left and Right love to peddle – Labour for the working class, Tories for the middle class – although in reality, the distinction is totally blurred: We have a greyscale social structure, not a black-and-white one.

    That said, if we climb this grey social scale, then as we climb higher into the more ‘established’ lower middle class demographic, I would expect this sub-spectrum of people to benefit greatly from the grammar system. Now, this is the truth that Theresa May will not admit on political grounds – grammar schools are *very good at allowing this lower-middle-class demographic to get a better education.* So, they do raise social mobility, if we are talking about the lower middle demographic.

    Onto the morality of this. A counter-argument to the above would claim, as Dr.Bousted does, that a selective system, by its very nature, leaves a huge number of people ‘behind,’ – those who don’t make the cut are somehow labelled for life, ‘traumatised’ by the ‘mental scars’ of being labelled a ‘failure.’ This is nothing but a melodramatic exaggeration, a misinterpretation of the reality, and quite possibly just self-pitying sour grapes. On television we see constant images in the news of hundreds of peniiless children in refugee camps, who have lost everything, who seem less ‘traumatised’ than our poor Western children bemoaning that their careers might not be as glittering as they have been brainwashed to expect. The truth however is that we shouldn’t view those who don’t make the academic cut-off as being ‘behind,’ it is a very condescending and snobbish viewpoint.

    If you do not pass the ‘academic’ 11-plus, this should mean you have PASSED, in a certain sense, the test to engage on a ‘vocational’ stream. Shock! Horror! The dreaded V word. How the Left hate this. It is a deluded principle / belief of elite left-leaning academics that if someone does not get A-stars academically, then they are automatically a ‘failure.’ It is a deluded belief that somehow every child has to be able to ‘access the curriculum.’ It is a deluded belief that encouraging a child onto a vocational stream at age 13 is somehow ‘labelling them for life’ and probably, in the demented modern interpretation of the term, against their Human Rights. But it is not wider society labelling them as thus; it is the elite politicians and educationalists who cling so tightly to the dogmatic belief that every child would be a genious if only it weren’t for this pesky unfair capitalism getting in the way. The real problem in our society is that we do not value the contribution of the working classes. Why doesn’t a retiring immigrant nursing assistant, having worked her fingers to the bone for forty years, get any recognition? Why doesn’t a binman get a gong for diligently performing his job for thirty years? What the hell is wrong with being a binman or a road-sweeper? Nothing. But no, we give CBE’s and OBE’s to arrogant pop stars, footballers and rocket scientists – people who get paid a lot of money anyway for doing a dream job that they love. A totally elitist and unfair system. And it is precisely this elitist system – whole-heartedly embraced by the Left as well as the the Right, which cements this view, especially among the liberal elite, that being working class means being a failure. Somebody, in this world, at the end of the day, has to sweep the streets. Somebody has to put one brick on top of another and somebody has to curse loudly as they struggle to lever an old tyre off a commercial truck. The leftist elite in education, as well as the nastier right-wing politicians continue to look down on these people in society as ‘failures.’ I say we need a revolution in the way society views working-class jobs. Why not a once-a-year huge awards ceremony at Wembley celebrating long service and giving nationally-recongnised medals and awards to people in manual trades for their outstanding contribution to society? What about a more positive view of these people in the media? Just look how the ‘liberal’ (read that as arrogant elite) BBC portray the working classes in Eastenders! And, sorry Labour, just shovelling a few more quid at working-class jobs does nothing to repair this perception gap in society, certainly while demand for housing means rent increases constantly outstrip whatever little pay rise even Labour are prepared to shove their way. What’s needed is a revolution. If lower-middle class mums want to be pushy and encourage their children into academic careers via an expanded grammar school system, then I say so be it. But that must come with a complete re-evaluation of the role played by the working classes in society. The Left and leftist elite should celebrate working-class jobs, not denigrate them.

    Finally, why is it that those senior politicians that are so against grammar schools are products of the public school education system themselves? I interpret that as an attempt by the elite to block out any chance of the working classes ( however that is defined these days) whatsoever of entering the elite professions that they and their ilk dominate. I remember Michael Howard in opposition berating Tony Blair on the subject; Howard being a successful product of the grammar school system and Blair a product of an elite public school system. If Dr. Bousted is against grammar schools for moral egalitarian purposes, she should also come out and say she supports a ban on public schools, otherwise the argument holds no water.

    Let’s start valuing working-class jobs, not continue to label them as failures.