Red on Blue: Should we create new grammar schools?

Red on Blue is a new feature pitting Labourites against Tories on topical issues - this week focusing on Theresa May's controversial plans to lift the ban on building new grammar schools

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Red: Felix Bunting

Labour’s reaction to a proposal to consider reintroducing grammar schools was a unified one. A proposed national day of action in opposition to selective education brought together party officials, elected representatives, and the party membership; there was Angela Rayner’s powerful Commons speech criticised the Conservative policy of “segregation, segregation, segregation”, echoing Blair’s famous dictum; grammars even formed a rare point of agreement between John McDonnell and Alastair Campbell on Question Time. Why is the party so opposed to selective education?

The reasons are threefold. There is the fact that instituting selective education at an eleven-plus exam means someone’s life chances rest, to a significant degree, upon a single set of test papers. This is a dangerous pressure to place on our children, who are already some of the least happy in the OECD. Looking at the testimonials of people who failed the eleven-plus, or had friendships broken up by different exam scores, is heart-breaking; for instance, the author Michael Morpurgo described it as his “first public humiliation” and the effect of it stayed with him, believing that “with every exam I took, that early diagnosis of stupidity was confirmed”. If this is the experience of someone with a successful public career, the effect of such a test upon generations of schoolchildren is tragic to consider.

Grammars also have a detrimental impact upon social mobility; according to a Sutton Trust report, those eligible for free school meals make up less than 3% of grammar school students, but 18% of the population. Comparing children in areas with the grammar school system who test highly at the end of secondary school shows similarly negative results. 32% of these children on free-school meals will go to study at grammar schools versus 60% from more well-off backgrounds. This is a combination of the effect of some being able to afford tutoring for the test, and the negative consequences of poorer socio-economic background upon educational attainment. The result is that children with household incomes in the bottom 50% in areas with the grammar school system perform worse – and only those in the top 5% do noticeably better.

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Furthermore, the existence of grammar schools can damage surrounding comprehensive schools: it removes some of their higher achieving students, encourages better teachers to work at grammar schools, diverts public funding from comprehensive schools which promote social mobility, and establishes alumni associations which provide further funding.

Grammar schools are simply bad for under-privileged children – they are less likely to pass the entrance exams, regardless of their academic level at the end of primary school, and their existence damages the standard of education students receive at surrounding schools. Suggestions of an improved testing system come with little evidence of how this will be achieved, and it is hard to see how testing at multiple ages will sufficiently reduce the pressure or the effect of tutoring. Additionally, they significantly limit interaction between students with different test scores (and as such different social backgrounds). The evidence base for grammar schools is weak, and it is vital we oppose


Blue: Redha Rubaie

A key component of ensuring a good quality of life for one’s citizens is to ensure that they have the best and most appropriate education that can be afforded to them – something that should be at the very front and centre of politics. Unfortunately, the British political class have done a great disservice to education, whether through underfunding, or through structures that simply do not reflect the make-up of those going through the education system. In an area where evidence would be of the greatest value, the issue of grammar schools has been turned into a political football to be kicked about.

Indeed, the very abolition of the grammar school is one of the great stains on Labour’s record in the 20th century. Such was the vitriol towards grammars held by Anthony Crosland (lest not we forget he was a graduate of Winchester and Trinity, Oxford) that he remarked, “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every f***ing grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland.” The intention may well have been noble, to try to provide a comprehensive education that was world-class and that all could benefit from. But, as is unfortunately too often the case with the Left, the assumption of homogeneity was one which would prove to be false. Half a century after the abolition of grammar school and working class kids are still being let down by their schools. It is high time we look at new measures that allow for a more specialised education.

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The premise behind a grammar school is merely setting on a more institutional level – it ensures that the members of class are of a minimum standard. This narrowing of the ability window makes it so much easier for teachers to provide good quality education. They focus more on allowing students to reach their potential as opposed to the status quo, which increasingly just teaches you to be good enough and fails to nurture the undeniable wealth of talent that we have in the UK. The grammar school also allows a greater culture of competition and focus, which is the kind of thing that often sharpens the mind and ensures that we have a wealth of working class people making up the elites that rule Britain.

This is not to say that the grammar school will not be without its own set of problems. One of the most contentious issues is the crowding out effect, which the Left argues will damage social mobility. Unfortunately, our data sets are woefully inadequate. People often focus on Kent and Buckinghamshire, but it is in less affluent areas of Yorkshire that the grammar school becomes such a valuable asset. We need a fully diversified educational system where having a vocation is not stigmatised and people are not treated as a tick box exercise. I truly believe that grammar schools, if well thought out, have a vital role to play in a vibrant and inclusive educational system.