Grammar Schools and Social Mobility: the wishful thinking that won’t die


The journalist Tony Parsons (echoing much conservative opinion) wrote in an opinion piece for GQ that the abolition of Grammar Schools:

….really was the British equivalent of the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China – an act of institutionalised vandalism, all done in the name of equality. Crosland, the archetype Bollinger Bolshevik, wanted to exterminate grammar schools because they are elitist. He laid the foundations for our post-meritocracy. The grammar schools were the best mechanism for social mobility that this country ever had. The Labour Party burned that ladder and, terrified of seeming elitist, no subsequent government – Labour or Tory – has tried to restore it.

This argument is based on the co-incidence of the comprehensivisation of secondary education with a drop in intergenerational mobility. But this is correlation not causation. The two factors appear to be unrelated. We can tell this because grammar schools were abolished in different localities at different times, therefore academic research can unpick the relationship:

Children are no worse off in socio-economic terms if they go to a comprehensive rather than to schools in the selective system, according to new research. The study found that when the total cohort of children was taken into account those who went to comprehensive schools were not disadvantaged in terms of social mobility compared to those who attended grammar schools and secondary moderns.

Rather what happened was that the expansion in the number of management and professional jobs stopped.

And to be clear modern grammar schools perform no better than their historic counterparts: they take very few pupils from deprived backgrounds and where they still exist students from poorer backgrounds under-perform relative to the rest of the country.

In short, the right’s panacea for stalled social mobility would seem likely to make things worse.


2 thoughts on “Grammar Schools and Social Mobility: the wishful thinking that won’t die

  1. The article states ” Going to a grammar school rather than a comprehensive did not make children from poorer backgrounds more likely to be upwardly mobile.”

    However the abstract from the academic paper states on this point “going to a grammar school rather than a comprehensive does not make low-origin children more likely to be upwardly mobile but it helps them move further if they are”

    Which might conceivably suggest that ‘low-origin children’ whose parents value education and encourage their children to better themselves will achieve more in educational terms than ‘low-origin children’ whose parents don’t care about their kids’ education. Which leaves the latter group of kids possibly seriously disadvantaged through no fault of their own.

  2. Yeah, the whole grammar school stuff is a romanticised myth. It’s useful for those on the right because it allows them to ignore the substantive issue behind social mobility i.e. vast material and financial inequality.

    The problem for social mobility isn’t that the best kids from state schools end up doing massively worse en masse because they don’t have access to selective education, the problem is that average/below average children are propped up by privelege, where as if they were in an already low socio-economic group, they’d be stuck there.

    Look at stuff like the massive tail in English education: the massive amount of people who end up with no good qualifications out of schools. These are disproportionately from low socio-economic backgrounds. If they were from other socio-economic backgrounds, most would end up doing fine in school.

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