I’m very proud to say that I was educated at an East London comprehensive school. It was an institution where every child was celebrated and where we all felt that we each had something valuable to bring to the school. Sporting prowess, academic excellence, acting ability were all held in high esteem by all pupils. There was a culture of high expectations for all students, driven by an inspirational group of teachers led by Sir Michael Wilshaw, who went on to become the current Chief Inspector of schools.
It was because of the dedication of those teachers that I was lucky enough to win a place at Oxford University, not a hugely common occurrence for a black male born to immigrant parents who grew up in a tower block in the most deprived part of London. The school was a true engine of social mobility.
So you could argue that my opposition to the creation of new grammar schools is based on my personal life experiences. But in fact, my deep concerns over what would be one of the most socially regressive policies passed in recent memory is largely informed by evidence.
That evidence shows that grammar schools don’t adequately serve young people from disadvantaged communities. Instead, selective school places are often “captured” by middle class families. According to the Sutton Trust, less than 3 per cent of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, whereas almost 13 per cent of entrants come from outside the state sector.
The Fair Education Alliance’s 2015 Report Card on educational inequality shows that gaps emerge very early between poor children and their wealthier peers – this early disadvantage would limit the chances of young people from poor families of succeeding in selection exams. Interestingly, the evidence shows that this gap in access persists even when deprived children achieve equally good grades.
Unsurprising, given the existence of expensive private bespoke tuition for the 11+ tests. Rather than tackle educational inequality, grammar schools compound it. You could impose a mechanism to force any new school to diversify its intake but that then raises the question – why not try to close the gap through existing school structures?
Moreover, the evidence shows that these schools have a pernicious effect on poor pupils who don’t make it past the entrance exam. As a matter of principle, the state should not endorse a system that brands pupils as winners and losers at such a young age. In practice, outcomes for pupils from poor families who fail to secure access to grammar schools are worse than those who are educated in counties without selective schools.
Shockingly, this also manifests itself in later life. Research by Simon Burgess at Bristol University indicates that earnings inequality is greater for those who grew up in areas operating a selective system compared to those who grew up in comprehensive areas. Number 10 and the Department for Education are slowly sleepwalking into imposing a new glass ceiling for disadvantaged children.
The government must be applauded for putting the debate on social mobility front and centre of their plans for post-brexit Britain. However, there are other policy areas that need urgent attention – bold action to attract the best leaders and teachers into the most deprived parts of the country, investment in improving the quality of early years, guaranteeing the provision of impartial careers advice to the poor families, ensuring that young people have the opportunities to develop their character to name a few. Getting these right as soon as possible will do more for disadvantaged children than creating new grammar schools ever will.
Director of the Fair Education Alliance.