How very depressing it is to discover that Theresa May shares Michael Gove’s lip-curling disdain for experts. She may claim to be someone who likes to evaluate all the available evidence before reaching a decision, but there seems to be at least one, glaring exception.
She is a huge fan of grammar schools. Despite there being no evidence at all that they improve social mobility or educational outcomes, she wants more of them. Experts? Who needs ‘em?
Sir Michael Wilshaw, outgoing chief schools inspector for England, who says creating more grammar schools would be a ‘profoundly retrograde step’? Huh. What does he know?
Alan Milburn, who chairs the government’s social mobility commission and says more grammar schools ‘will not provide a social mobility dividend, it will be a social mobility disaster’? He’s an expert. Ignore him.
Even the pro-grammar school commentator Tim Montgomerie is forced to concede that ‘there is some evidence that the remaining grammar schools disproportionately benefit better-off families and are not the great engine for social mobility that proponents claim.’
It’s funny, isn’t it? No one says: ‘Let’s bring back secondary modern schools.’ (Note for younger readers: In the days when all children had to sit an exam at the age of 11, those who passed the exam went to grammar schools, and those who failed went to secondary modern schools. Most of the ‘failures’ left school at the age of 15 with few if any qualifications.)
It is not difficult to find evidence to disprove Mrs May’s contention that grammar schools improve social mobility. Take Kent, which has the highest proportion of selective state schools in England. According to Alan Milburn, only 27% of children in Kent who receive free school meals (which is the standard measure of poverty) get five good GCSEs. The national average is 33% and in London, where most areas are purely comprehensive, it is 45%.
Conclusion? Children from less well-off backgrounds do worse, not better, in areas with grammar schools. It is exactly the opposite of what Mrs May says she wants. In the words of former Labour Cabinet minister Alan Johnson, one of those rare working class boys who made it to a grammar school – but who left at the age of 15 without a single qualification: ‘My argument against selective education is that it wastes more talent than it nurtures; destroys more potential than it realises; ruins more young lives than it enhances.’
There are still more than a hundred secondary modern schools in England, and 28% of them have been officially judged ‘inadequate’. (The equivalent figure for grammar schools is one per cent.) According to the National Association of Secondary Moderns: ‘With grammar schools come secondary moderns, lots of them. For every grammar school created there will be an extra three (or more) secondary moderns.’
The proponents of more grammar schools seem not to understand this. If you create separate schools for children who are more academically gifted, it stands to reason that there will then be fewer academically gifted children in the non-selective schools. Less will be expected of the pupils who didn’t make it, the best teachers will shun them, and their exam results will be unimpressive.
When Michael Howard was leader of the Conservative party, he famously told the then prime minister Tony Blair: ‘This grammar school boy will not take any lessons from that public school boy.’ It was an effective bit of parliamentary point-scoring, but when I asked him some time later if the secondary modern schools in Llanelli, where he was educated, were as good as the grammar schools, he was not much amused.
(Full disclosure: like Lord Howard, I went to school before comprehensives were invented – my school was half grammar, half secondary modern. My own children both went to a comprehensive school.)
If Mrs May is serious about wanting to improve educational standards and social mobility, which she should be, she should leave the secondary schools alone and focus on early years education instead. All the evidence suggests that it is in primary schools that the really important work is done, which is why I spend two afternoons a week in a local primary school as a voluntary reading helper. (If you’d like to do something similar, you can contact the childhood literacy charity Beanstalk by clicking here.)
Pay teachers properly. Fund schools properly. Improve the training of teachers and ensure that they get the support that they need from ancillary staff who can help with children who need extra assistance. According to one recent poll, nearly half the state school teachers in England are planning to leave the profession within the next five years. That’s what Mrs May should be worrying about – not turning the clock back to an inglorious past when 75% of children were branded ‘failures’ at the age of 11.