Grammar schools are the key to social mobility

Rohan Banerjee
grammar school 300x225 Grammar schools are the key to social mobility

(Getty Images)

No less awed by its architecture, no less humbled by its size, I made my way through the grand archway of my former grammar school in Ramsgate, where I’d been a pupil for seven years. Now studying politics, I was back at my old school conducting research for a dissertation on class divisions, asking whether education and the job market had become the preserve of the privileged, or if someone from my ordinary background could still slip through the net?

And it’s an increasingly relevant question. Last month Kent County Council’s proposal to create a new, academically selective grammar school was overruled by central government in favour of a non-selective free school.

That is a pity, I thought as I strolled over the green grass of the playing fields. One of the great difficulties in our society is the lack of social mobility. Thanks to a caustic cocktail of high taxes, fixed wages, and an ostensibly tiered education system, movement between the classes has become very unlikely – we only have to count the number of public schoolboys in Westminster.

As David Cameron and Nick Clegg stood shoulder to shoulder atop the political pedestal in 2010, both testimonies to their own advantaged backgrounds, Andrew Neil quipped, “not so much prime minister and deputy prime minister, as head boy and deputy head boy.” So, what is it that makes a private education so useful?

Beyond better facilities, school trips to the continent, eccentric traditions and knowing how to tie a Windsor knot well before you would ever need to, there is a more significant perk worth more than all of these combined – networking; a sense of fellowship, affinity and genuine pride usually predicated by some sort of house system or prefect culture that sets students up for life.

I stood in the impressive oak-beamed dining hall once more, admiring the honours boards and Oxbridge scholarships that hung proudly on the walls. My school was not a private school; but it was every bit as good as one, and it cost my parents absolutely nothing.

There was a competitive house structure, a set of ties to recognise different achievements, as well as a healthy culture of prestige. The school sent students of all backgrounds to the country’s leading universities and rivalled the local private schools in Ofsted reports and examination results.

As you can probably tell, I’ve waded into this quagmire before, talking about why grammars are the key to bridging the gap. I’ve been called all sorts as a result – posh, elitist, fascist, and perhaps worst of all, Tory. But I assure you, my enthusiasm for selection is none of these things. The dissertation was a way of legitimising it. The situation surrounding Sevenoaks has just confirmed it.

With less than 200 remaining, the uninformed do their best to devalue them by means of a series of misconceptions. We should note, however, that intake is not heavily skewed towards the more impecunious layers of the petit bourgeoisie (a third of my year group received EMA) nor is the principle of selection to venerate the bright and neglect those who need help. Rather, the function of selection is to separate the faster learners from those who require a little more time. This measurement is made independently of class and income and allows aptitude to play a huge role in suitably placing the child in an environment appropriate to his or her intellectual pace.

Yet there are still critics and admittedly there is the small matter of the 11+, a single life defining moment that is often viewed as too early a watershed for a child. And writing as someone who failed his 11+, only attending grammar school by the determination of his mother’s appeal, I find it hard to bring myself to call for the reintroduction of a rigid system that consigns 80 per cent of the population to the enigma of elsewhere.

But while I might oppose a pre-pubescent test, I cannot ignore the obvious benefits of realising a student’s potential. As a political consensus sweeps all three major parties, we see a rare agreement amongst the senior politicos that there should be no selection within the state system, even as the private sector is free to streamline as much as it wants. Maybe it’s me but I’m naturally wary about consensus and I always feel a need to confront it. I can accept why there is no groundswell to return to the 11+ but should its shadow blot out discussion of any kind of selection whatsoever?

As an academic rapture saves 20 per cent of pupils, it does seem a great injustice to cast the remainder off to the erratic performance and low expectations of the comps. But could we not devise a more flexible state system that gives as much emphasis to good vocational and technology schools, that allow a child’s practical talents to be nurtured in tandem with, but notably not instead of, the national curriculum?

The liberal fantasy of higher education for all says that anyone can and should go to university, but this fashionable trend is insulting to those who take vocational courses or choose to work in professions outside the scope of academia. Selective education is about encouraging individuals to pursue their respective talents in a fitting environment.

But to hypothesize such benefits and romanticize my old school isn’t enough. There will always be cynics who claim on aggregate the grammar school system hasn’t really made a difference (that’s because there’s only 164 left), evidence is anecdotal (of course it is) and I’m not allowed to have an opinion because I went to one (I despair). To really sell the successes of the grammar school, I invite you to look at the statistics of the alternative, in its paltry attempts to rival the private sector.

As the comprehensive system struggles to produce a meagre figure of seven per cent overall when it comes to students with 3 A grades at A-level, such a feat is something of a formality for those who stalk the corridors of the Eton or Harrow. And even the anomalous Thomas Telford School in Shropshire with its 98 per cent pass rate at GCSE, employs an entrance exam.

If we adopt leavers’ destinations as a proxy, my argument gathers more pace. Simon Langton Grammar school in Canterbury has sent over 150 students to The Russell Group in the last five years; Dr. Challoner’s Grammar School in Amersham has an annual Oxbridge admissions average consistently exceeding double digits; and King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford upon Avon sent 75 per cent of their upper sixth to a university in the top 20 in 2012.

I’m sure some readers must be getting quite annoyed by now. Don’t worry; I haven’t forgotten the non-selectives that perform well too. There is of course, Hockerill Anglo-European College, lauded by The Independent as Britain’s top performing comprehensive at A-level. They boast results eclipsing a great many grammar schools, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. Although Hockerill is state funded academically and indeed non-selective, the school charges yearly boarding fees over £10,000.

I’m being obtuse. Of course there can be some good comprehensives, but the best ones are usually aided by some form of selection, setting by subject or in particularly affluent areas – just like some grammar schools. This is just a risk we take living in a free market.

I made my way back through the archway and walked home. Rest assured, however, my time at school was not the middle class jollity I’m sure the inevitable trolls on this piece will accuse me of. I grew up in the most impoverished part of Kent and the average income of my parents and the parents of my four closest friends totalled at less than a year’s fees at Eton. None of us had private tuition, three were on EMA, two went to Oxford, one drinks Red Stripe and all five ended up at a Russell Group university. To oppose a new grammar school in Sevenoaks, or anywhere for that matter, is to oppose the best chance we normal lads have at social mobility.

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  • Sudfr

    I completely agree with the article. I came from a council estate in rural Kent. Passed the 11 plus and never looked back. Most of my age group from working class backgrounds know that they would never have moved into the rich middle class without their time at grammar school.

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