Since becoming prime minister, Theresa May has repeatedly said that she wants to govern for “everyone” and not just “a privileged few”. Would grammar schools help create the meritocratic society envisaged by Mrs May?
In 2007, David Cameron accused grammar school promoters of “clinging on to outdated mantras that bear no relation to the reality of life”. He also added that these supporters were “splashing around in the shallow end of the educational debate”. Why, then, is the new leader of the Conservative Party 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 grammar school debate lies one of the biggest political obsessions of all time: class. In recent decades, class politics has been slowly eroded, replaced by liberal identity politics. But Theresa May is putting class politics back on the agenda.
Having been educated at a grammar school myself, I believe this to be nothing more than empty romanticism and fanciful rhetoric. Absolutely, there are some bright working class children who benefit from a grammar school education. However, overwhelming the places go to children from stable middle class households, whose parents can afford private tuition to help their child pass the 11-plus examamination. 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 doesn’t appear to hold true.May’s plan to open up new grammar schools reflects her “one-nation conservative” pitch. 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; she is hoping to woo working class voters, who increasingly feel the Labour party no longer speaks for them. Theoretically, grammar schools offer bright children from working class households a better education, allowing them to fulfil their academic potential. Everyone will benefit from the system, as education will be tailored to the needs of the individual.
Too much emphasis is often placed on the winners of the grammar school system. For example, the school I attended was the fifth highest ranked school in terms of GCSE results in the country, with 100% of pupils achieving five A*-C grades at GCSE. Hence, for those who do gain a place at a grammar school, a good education is almost guaranteed; these schools are amongst the top in the country, competing with the public schools such as Eton and Harrow. In addition, the impressive list of achievements from 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 polarising ex-PM Margaret Thatcher.
But what about the “losers”? Although I made the cut, many of my equally bright friends didn’t. They were devastated and so was I. We’d gone to the same nursery, primary school and junior school, but for reasons that an 11-year-old can’t 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, an ego is gradually built. The successful few are made to feel special because after all, if they weren’t special, why were they going to the special school for special people? The point I’m making here is that 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, like 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 explicitly said that new grammar schools wouldn’t be opened. The Leave campaign’s slogan of “taking back control” really does look quite laughable when you consider that we have a PM that no-one voted for, pursuing a policy which she does not have a democratic mandate to implement: so much for “restoring” democracy.
Some may accuse me of being a hypocrite: 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. Parents merely want what is best for their children. 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 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 grammar schools and social mobility, it is Theresa May who has all the fantasies to promote.
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