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On grammar schools and social mobility

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Head of Ofsted and Chief Inspector of Schools in England, has claimed in an interview with a left-wing newspaper that despite popular opinion, grammar schools restrict social mobility rather than help it.

[Some background here for non-British readers. Up until the late sixties / early seventies, the cleverest 25% of pupils in the state education system went to grammar schools and the rest went to 'secondary modern' schools. Successive governments, especially Labour governments, have restricted grammar schools and any kind of selection, such that few areas of the country still have any grammar schools. In most areas, they were replaced with 'comprehensive' schools, like the one I went to. Some of the grammars became independent private schools and left the state system altogether.

However, while it is strictly forbidden to create a new state grammar, some of the old ones hang on. They tend to be extremely popular with parents and they generally get very good exam results. Pretty much all of the top-performing state schools come from the small number of grammar schools, although of course you would expect schools that only take the cleverest 11 year olds to have got good exam results at 16 and 18. Even Labour, whose 1997 manifesto promised to abolish all selection in schools, left the decision to "local parents" after the election, presumably because they could see that closing down good schools was unlikely to be a vote-winner among the parents of kids who attended them.

Ofsted is the "non-ministerial government department" (i.e. a quango) that regulates and inspects schools in England.

Social mobility has been a hot topic in this country for a while because of the increasing perception that few people from comprehensive schools get the top jobs in the country. After the last election, left-wing bloggers and journalists were quick to point out that only six out of 23 members of the new coalition cabinet had attended comprehensive schools. Right-wing bloggers and journalists pointed out that even in the supposedly pro-comprehensive, anti-grammar, anti-private Labour Party, only eight of the 22 shadow cabinet members went to comprehensives. A 2007 study found that from a sample of 500 people in what were deemed to be the country's "top jobs", only 17% went to comprehensive schools.

90% of children in England and Wales attend comprehensive schools.]

Here's what Sir Michael said:
"Grammar schools are stuffed full of middle-class kids. A tiny percentage are on free school meals: 3%. That is a nonsense. Anyone who thinks grammar schools are going to increase social mobility needs to look at those figures."

That statement raises a number of questions:

  1. Only the poorest 13% (approximately - eligibility is based on whether parents receive certain welfare state benefits) of children in state education are eligible for free school meals. Does this mean that social mobility for the remaining 87% doesn't matter? Clearly, some of those 87% are already at the top of the tree, but in the middle are very large numbers of pupils from what politicians would call "ordinary" working class or middle class backgrounds. Those pupils should also have the opportunity of social mobility in a true meritocracy.

  2. In order to survive this long, a grammar school has probably avoided being subject to rule by a left-wing council (because left-wing councils tend to close them down on ideological grounds). Those left-wing councils tend not to be elected in affluent, middle-class areas - so of course they're "stuffed full of middle-class kids". I can give a local counter-argument to this. Devonport is the part of Plymouth around the naval base - it's poor, but not especially left-wing and still has a boys' grammar school and a girls' grammar school. I've spent a lot of time in both because of the "You're Hired!" competition, and each has lots of kids from obviously less well off backgrounds.

  3. Sir Michael's whole argument that grammar schools do not promote social mobility is somewhat weakened by his own background. Today he's one of the elite quangocrats who run the country and a knight of the realm. He grew up the son of a London postman. And he went to a state grammar school.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 16th, 2013 11:08 am (UTC)
1) If you're getting only 25% of the people who would most be helped by social mobility then an explanation is required.

2) Left wing councils do tend to be elected by affluent middle class areas. Conservative vote tends to be rural and the super wealthy. So Islington North, labour, Kensington and Chelsea, Tory. I have no idea whether grammar schools tend to survive more in wealthy or poorer areas. Eyeballing the list it does not appear to be exclusively (or even mainly) wealthy areas: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_grammar_schools_in_England

3) Surely a completely specious point. That he happened to have been helped by something does not indicate it is generally helpful -- it's a single data point. Like saying to that Malala girl "Well, being shot by the Taliban worked out quite well for you, why do you want to stop it happening to otehrs".
Dec. 16th, 2013 01:08 pm (UTC)
bravo your article
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )