The Tories and Grammar Schools
By Chris Winch
Grammar schools are selective secondary schools with a strong emphasis on academic achievement. Prior to their near-abolition in the 1970s they typically took on 20% of secondary school pupils, although in some areas, such as Wales, they took 33%. The 1944 Education Act established three tiers of schools: Grammars, Technical Schools and Secondary Modern Schools (the Tripartite System). Selection was determined by a one-off intelligence test, the 11+. The Technical schools failed to establish themselves properly and the Secondary Modern Schools educated around 70% of young people in England and Wales in the 1950s and 60s. Despite underfunding and a poor reputation, some pupils at Secondary Modern schools were able to excel academically, but they acquired a reputation as a route to dead end jobs.
How and why they were abolished
Not surprisingly the Tripartite System proved unpopular with parents (i.e. voters). The Technical Schools had little public support and parents resented their children going to schools perceived as second, if not third rate. These included many middle class parents. In the end, Grammar Schools had too little support within the electorate for them to survive. However, the way in which they were abolished, particularly by Tony Crosland when Secretary of State, left much to be desired.
Crosland simply wanted to abolish grammar schools without considering whether the Tripartite System could be reformed or how school performance could be raised. For example, the method of selection could have been made fairer and more uniform across the country, more resources could have been put into Technical and Secondary Modern Schools and a high quality system of vocational education could have been developed. The Industrial Training Act of 1964 would have been a great opportunity for the Wilson government to have done this. One suspects that Crosland was an ideological egalitarian who was simply determined to destroy Grammar Schools without a serious consideration of what the alternatives might be. This attitude produced a lingering resentment that continues to this day. Currently, about 160 Grammar Schools remain in various parts of Britain.
Initially, comprehensive schools were not a great success. Many continued to function, in effect, as secondary moderns. Only with the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988 and with the development of methods for tracking the progress of pupils in detail did improvement start to happen. Reforms in primary education which bore down on illiteracy and innumeracy also helped. Gradually more diversity was introduced into the system to cater for different abilities and talents. However, comprehensive schools have never quite shaken off the poor reputation that they acquired as a result of the careless way in which they were introduced.
The current system – academisation
The fifty years since the near- abolition of Grammar Schools have thus resulted in a very varied system with more opportunities to gain qualifications and to go to university than the Tripartite System ever allowed. Nearly 50% of young people go to university, far more than the labour market can absorb. Opportunities for high quality vocational education remain very poor. In Germany about 62% of young people aged 15-25 do a Dual System apprenticeship, which sets them up with a valuable occupation for life, as well as a respected and established place in society. The comparable figure for apprenticeships of similar quality is below 3%. The compulsory levy on firms due to start in 2017 may change this, but the history of vocational education in Britain gives good grounds for scepticism. The big challenge for Britain’s young people remains the shortage of good jobs and a corresponding lack of training opportunities.
In this context, bringing back Grammar Schools, proposed this month by Theresa May, cannot address this problem. So what problem is the proposal supposed to address? It seems like it is a very particular problem. Academically able children from poor families will, it is claimed, do better in Grammars than they would in a Local Authority, Academy or Free School.
This is an odd way of making policy. Electorally, it still has to face the problem of making most children losers in an educational race. Politically, it is risky since many Conservative MPs oppose the policy. In policy terms it is odd, since one would have thought that the aim of an education policy would have been to benefit all children, rather than just a small minority, let alone disadvantage a large majority as a by-product. Intellectually, it lacks substance, since all policies have advantages rather than disadvantages and a good policymaker chooses policies where the balance of advantages outweigh the disadvantages. There is no evidence that Theresa May has made this calculation. In all, the recent policy announcement is not a promising start for Theresa May as Prime Minister.
What is the evidence?
By coincidence, a detailed report on Grammar School performance has just been published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI). There are its principal findings:
Dealing specifically with Theresa May’s main claim concerning poorer pupils, that is those on Free School Meals (FSM), they write:
“ Superficially, grammar schools appear to do well in closing gaps – with a small 4.3 percentage point gap between the proportion of FSM and non-FSM children securing the 5 good GCSE standard, compared with a 25.5 percentage point gap in all non-selective schools. The Prime Minister appeared to claim that this constitutes a social mobility argument for more grammar schools. But this is a weak argument – the gap is narrow because grammar schools only select pupils who have high attainment on entry. Adjusting for prior attainment eliminates much of the difference.”
In other words, when one genuinely compares like with like, the performance of grammar schools for poorer pupils is little better than that of non-selective schools. The report finds that, although grammar schools appear to secure a higher rate of achievement than non-selective schools for pupils of similar characteristics, this positive difference declines as the proportion of grammar school places rises while the negative effects on pupils who are not in grammar schools increases. While it is true that the performance of FSM pupils at grammar schools is better than that of non-FSM pupils, data is based on only 500 pupils whose characteristics are different from those of FSM pupils who do not attend grammar schools. In other words, we really need to compare FSM pupils with the same relevant characteristics in both selective and non-selective areas. When this is done, the performance of grammar schools is only marginally better than it is for non-selective schools. Overall, performance in selective school areas is no better and no worse than the performance of non-selective areas.
There thus appear to be small gains for poor pupils in selective schools compared with similar pupils in non-selective areas, but at the expense of a wider gap between the best and the worst performing students. This is an interesting point in relation to May’s stated intention to attend to the needs of the neglected in Britain. Her schools policy appears to favour the strong at the expense of the weak. Perhaps this is defensible in economic terms (although we doubt it), but we would like to hear the defence.
These issues were not addressed by the Conservatives in the parliamentary debate on the re-introduction of grammar schools, the details of which the government refused to divulge. In PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn focused on the theme of a good education for all and questioned the lack of evidence for the proposed new policy. What he got in reply was a rant from Theresa May about Labour not caring about catering for children with high ability. She did not address the points made by Corbyn. It is a pity that the EPI report did not appear before this episode of PMQs as it would have made May look even more uncomfortable.
What is likely to happen?
There is little doubt that May and most of the Tory Party are committed to the reintroduction of grammar schools, but everyone else and a small number of Tories which include George Osborne, Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan, are not. The Chief Inspector for Schools has denounced the policy. This looks like something to which May has a passionate personal commitment which is leading her to adopt a risky policy on a wafer thin parliamentary majority, when she has plenty of other difficulties on her plate. This is an area where Labour can develop a really effective attack if it can swallow Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership on this issue.