Fierce supporter of the comprehensive education system, the late Labour MP, Anthony Crosland was infamously quoted to have said ‘[I]f it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every f*****g grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland’. Critics of grammar schools argue that such institutions are socially selective, favouring sharp-elbowed middle class parents who can afford expensive private tutors to help their offspring into them.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Education Secretary, Justine Greening, has been accused of pursuing a misguided policy to justify the expansion of new grammar schools, a ban which Mrs May removed after becoming Prime Minister last year.
The Prime Minister has long regarded grammar schools as an engine of social mobility, and despite rumours that Greening was initially opposed to the extension of the role of grammar schools, it seems that this opposition has now been set aside. Speaking on Radio 4 this morning, Greening stated that the school system needs to support those who are struggling and not just ‘the privileged few’.
However, this policy has been criticised for two key reasons:
Are grammar schools genuinely capable of facilitating social mobility? A useful indicator of social mobility is to look at the number of pupils in receipt of free school meals (FSM). If grammar schools had a higher number of such pupils than the national average, one might conclude that they do help more disadvantaged pupils, but the evidence does not seem to bear this out. Indeed, the percentage of grammar school pupils on FSM is 3% compared to 17% nationally. The government’s own analysis shows most places at selective state schools go to children from well-off families, something that Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner was quick to reiterate: “[T]hey’re trying to fiddle the numbers but even in their own policy, even in their own research they’ve shown that 53% of the wealthier than average families are going to go into grammar school as opposed to 20% less within the comprehensive system’.
Who is policy actually aimed at? Greening argues that ‘ordinary working families’ should benefit from this policy, but these are defined as individuals not poor enough to qualify for the Pupil Premium, but those whose families earn less that £25,100 a year. One third of new grammar school places should be given to families who fit these criteria. This raises the question of how those at the bottom of the economic pile will be supported.
See here for a useful bbc.co.uk article on the story, including a discussion of the value of using FSM to measure poverty.
See gov.uk for the government’s most recent report on Schools, pupils and their characteristics.