In 2007, David Cameron accused grammar school promoters of “clinging on to outdated mantras that bear no relation to the reality of life”, adding that these individuals were “splashing around in the shallow end of the educational debate.” So why, then, is the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, a grammar school supporter?
Between 1945 and 1976, state-funded education in England and Wales was organised through a tripartite system following the 1944 Butler Education Act. Three different types of school were introduced: grammar schools for the brightest 25 per cent, as determined by the 11-plus examination; secondary technical schools, where students would specialise in scientific and mechanical subjects; and secondary modern schools for everyone else, where students were prepared for “less-skilled” jobs.
At the heart of the recent grammar school proposal lies one of the biggest political obsessions of all time: class. In recent decades, class politics has slowly eroded, replaced by liberal identity politics. But Theresa May is putting class politics back onto the agenda.
Stereotypically, the Conservative Party is seen as the party for the rich. This policy is part of May’s attempt to re-brand the party, reflecting her “one-nation conservative” pitch to the electorate. May is hoping to woo working class voters, who increasingly feel the Labour party no longer speaks for them. Theoretically, so the mantra goes, grammar schools offer a better education to bright children from working class households, allowing them to fulfil their academic potential. Thus, everyone will benefit from the system, as education will be tailored to the needs of the individual.
Having been educated at a grammar school myself, I believe this to be nothing more than empty romanticism and a fanciful rhetoric. Absolutely, there are some bright working class children who benefit from grammar school education. However, the overwhelming proportion of places go to children from stable middle class households, whose parents can afford private tuition to help their child pass the 11-plus examination. Personally, I received private tuition for about a year. Some individuals I knew were privately tutored for periods of over two years. Moreover, recently published research suggests that only three per cent of children entitled to free school meals attend grammar schools. Hence, the romantic story sold that grammar schools are full of bright children from working class households really does not appear to hold true.
Too much emphasis is often placed on the winners of the grammar school system. The school I attended was ranked the fifth-highest school in terms of GCSE results in the country, with 100 per cent of pupils achieving five A*-C grades at GCSE. Grammar schools are amongst the top in the country, competing with public schools such as Eton and Harrow. In addition, the impressive list of grammar school alumni suggests that a bright future is more than likely. Jeremy Corbyn went to a grammar school, as did current Prime Minister Theresa May, as well as the infamously polarising ex-PM Margaret Thatcher.
But what about the ‘losers’? Although I made the cut, many of my equally bright friends did not. They were devastated—as was I. We had gone to the same nursery, primary school, and junior school, but for reasons that an 11-year-old cannot fully comprehend, we were to be educated separately during high school. Those who apply and are unsuccessful can feel incredibly demoralised, especially at the tender age of 11. But for many who do succeed, the ego is built. The successful few are made to feel special because, after all, if they were not special, why were they going to the special school for special people? We should not ignore the impact the system has on how children feel. It can instil a sense of worthiness amongst those who attend grammar schools, as if they have earnt the right to look down on everyone else. Many (though not all) begin to see income and wealth inequalities as justified: merely the workings of so-called ‘meritocracy’.
A very simple reason to oppose grammar schools, however, is that the Conservative manifesto made no reference at all to the possibility of opening up new grammar schools. The Leave campaign’s slogan of “taking back control” really does look quite laughable. As a consequence of the political outfall following the EU referendum, we have a PM that no one voted for, pursuing policies for which she does not have a democratic mandate to implement. So much for “restoring” democracy.
Some may accuse myself and others of being hypocrital: for being educated at a grammar school and yet opposing their re-introduction. But empty identity politics helps no one. Individuals are not to blame; it is the system at fault. No one can blame a parent who pays for private tuition to help prepare for the 11-plus exam, in the hope of improving their child’s future life chances. And at 11 years old, a child cannot be blamed for a decision taken by their parents.
Despite rare anecdotal success stories, there is an overwhelming academic consensus that grammar schools do not improve social mobility. But the big question is this: do we really want to return to a system of segregated education, where 25 per cent of the “brightest” children in the country—as determined by a narrow 11-plus exam—are given a special education, while everyone else receives a sub-standard one? Corbyn’s critics suggest that he endorses “Alice in Wonderland” style politics. However, when it comes to the subject of grammar schools and social mobility, Mrs May is the one selling the fantasy.