Grammar schools – another step back to the 1950s

Paul Clarke writes

The proposal by Theresa May and her Brexit cabinet to substantially increase the number of grammar schools is a further step towards entrenching class privilege – despite their false claim that grammar schools increase social mobility. It is a part of a series of measures aimed at refocusing working class education on vocational courses and eliminating courses that teach students to think critically.

The idea that there was a ‘golden age’ when grammar schools enabled social mobility children is a myth. The Crowther Report in 1959 showed that just 10% of grammar school pupils came from working class backgrounds – and two thirds of them left without getting three ‘O’ Levels. The report noted that 81% of working class grammar school students left before age 17. Grammar schools, in other words, did very little to promote social mobility.

A snapshot of statistics about grammar schools now gives strong clues to what’s going on. There are 163 grammar schools as against more than 3000+ non grammar schools, a big majority of which are comprehensive schools, now known as community schools.

In secondary schools overall 14% of pupils are ‘pupil premium’ students – students from poorer backgrounds who get free school meals or have special needs. Only 3% of grammar school students get the pupil premium, which unsurprisingly means poorer students are a tiny proportion of grammar school intake.

An appalling 74% of grammar schools are single sex (as opposed to 11% of community schools) and they are much more likely to be academies – ie independent of local authorities and run like a business.

For the really wealthy, for the capitalist and upper middle classes, this is a side-show. They send their kids to fee-paying private schools (‘public schools’), and get a massive pay off from that in terms of educational outcomes and life chances (see chart below). The extension of grammar schools by contrast is aimed at a broader section of middle class parents who can be convinced that exam selection at 11+ is a surer way into a ‘good’ school than the present postcode scramble, and crucially where their offspring can be educated alongside other mainly middle class students.

At the general election only one party advocated a return to grammar schools – UKIP. The Tories adopting the grammar school cause can perhaps help them reclaim a section of the middle class UKIP vote, something they will be hoping to do post-Brexit anyway.

Middle class parents will have a significant advantage in getting their children into grammar schools. They will be able to afford private tutors to coach students for a new 11+ exam (and prep schools will do the same for wealthier families). At 11 years old, students from middle class houses with lots of books and highly educated parents have a massive leg up in formal education, with much better literacy and numeracy.

Education minister Justine Greening and the Prime Minister say that new grammar schools will have to help local non-selective schools and take a minimum quota of poor students. This of course is fiddling round the edges of an entirely regressive proposal.

Before comprehensives were widely introduced in the 1970s, the division between grammar schools, secondary modern schools and technical schools mirrored the expected lifetime outcomes. Teachers, local bank managers, senior clerical and factory administration staff, more responsible local government and non-medical NHS staff, laboratory and research staff – all these jobs that needed higher order literacy skills – were the expected province of grammar school students. At this time only around 8% of students went to university and many jobs that today require a degree then needed ‘just’ A Levels.

Grammar schools, about 25% of students, had a more academic curriculum, geared to getting ‘O’ Levels and ‘A’ levels and potentially getting students to university. Secondary modern schools were heavily biased towards technical and vocational subjects and these were rigidly enforced according to gender. One woman told a History Workshop project on secondary modern schools:

“In my last year at school we had to choose whether we wanted to go in the class that led us onto a nursing career or a class for those interested in office/secretarial work. The two other streams were for the least able pupils. I neither wanted to be a nurse (we had been shown around the local hospital to see tape worms in jars, etc) or work in an office. I suppose I must have plumped for the office option as I remember sitting at a desk with a typewriter. I left school in 1967 at the tender age of fifteen years and three months without any qualifications and got a job as an office junior.”

Working class young men expected to be in a factory, mine, warehouse, shop or have a lowly office job, be a farm labourer or join the armed forces. At age eleven the future for most pupils was set. Of course if grammar schools become more widespread, present day community schools will be stripped of their more academically gifted students, and they will revert to being de facto secondary moderns.

This fits in with changes to further and higher education and the curriculum decided under education secretaries Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan. The system whereby most pupils go to sixth form colleges or FE colleges to do A Levels is being abolished. Secondary schools are being encouraged to establish their own sixth forms and an area review is seeing the merger or closure of many sixth form and FE colleges. Sixth form colleges have been a particular Tory target because most of them concentrate on getting working class students to university and teach a range of subjects that schools, with less resources, don’t offer – and the Tories don’t like anyway.

The list of subjects being abolished at A level is revealing – Science in Society, Critical Thinking, Film Studies, Communication and Culture, Applied Science, Creative Writing, Citizenship, Polish, Modern Hebrew, Punjabi, Turkish and others. The Tories falsely claim that some of these subjects lack academic rigour, but they really want to close down anything with a critical content and also prevent students getting A Levels in their spoken-at-home languages. All this makes things simpler for school sixth forms that don’t have the resources to teach a wide curriculum.

There must be questions about whether the government can get its grammar school proposals through parliament, and even if they do the process of switching to grammars would be enormously difficult. But such a change fits in with another change that’s very real but not much heralded – the retreat on the 50% target for getting students to university.

All the evidence is that producing more and more graduates has enormous cultural benefits, but doesn’t transform the economic prospects of capitalist economies very much. Often the result is graduates on zero hour contracts and people with doctorates working as baristas. A new de facto grammar/secondary modern system would likely lead to substantially fewer students going to university and a cutback in university courses and numbers – and this will hit working class students hardest. This is only reinforced by the £9000 a year fees which has led to many universities struggling to recruit at clearing this summer.

At the same time Britain sorely lacks an extensive and high level apprenticeship system. Only 5% of students go on apprenticeship courses because of the lack of relevant and high level provision, which needs much more government investment. Too often it’s a short period of cheap or free labour for employers. The job prospects for students forced into the new secondary moderns but unable to get on useful apprenticeships would be grim. The number in low paid and on zero hours contracts is growing, not shrinking.

Along with grammar schools the government aims to allow faith schools to recruit as many as they want on the basis of faith alone, rather than maintain the 50% quota of admitting local children regardless of religion. This is particular is aimed at allowing Catholic schools to prioritise Catholic students irrespective of where they live, at the expense of non-Catholic local pupils.

Post-1960s comprehensive education and widening access to universities opened up a new realm of educational opportunities for working class students, now under threat. But socialists need to be a bit hard headed and realistic about what education can achieve by way of social change.

“Social mobility” has become the holy grail of politicians from Theresa May leftwards and Tony Bair’s “education, education and education” a key goal in improving Britain’s economy for many of the same people.

But social mobility as the key way of transforming the class structure or ending poverty and social exclusion is nonsense. Britain is one of the least socially mobile advanced countries, and that won’t end soon. There are only so many lawyers, doctors, dentists and other highly paid professionals that a society needs or capitalism can pay for. British universities know the numbers doing law or medical science is ridiculous, few of them will be lawyers and doctors, but it gets bums on seats.

Class privilege cannot be educated away. The real capitalist class, families worth many millions in stocks and shares, are impervious to educational change. In the best-paid professions the advantages for people with a public school education is dramatically shown by the following chart of public school alumni produced by the Sutton Trust.


This chart doesn’t include bankers, but:

“Just 7% of all UK children attend fee-paying schools but 34% of new entrants to the banking sector who were educated in the UK had attended a fee-paying school, rising to almost 70% of new entrants in private equity. More than 50% of current leaders within the banking sector who are from the UK were educated privately.

“Oxbridge entrants to the City are more likely to be privately educated than Oxbridge graduates who go elsewhere: 42% of all Oxbridge graduates went to private schools but 65% of Oxbridge entrants to the banking sector went to private school.” (1)

Note the chart figures for rugby union internationals, England cricketers – and pop stars! The performing arts are packed with class privilege. And one not on the list, which school do you think Damian Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie went to? All of them went to Eton, except Benedict Cumberbatch who went to Harrow.

The fight against grammar schools has a good chance of success. But the fight for an overall more equitable education system depends on making advances on many other fronts of working class and progressive struggle.

This article first appeared on Left Unity’s website


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.