Posted in curriculum, education, Government stragegy, parents, Uncategorized

Can grammar schools really improve social mobility?

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Within hours of its publication on 12 September 2016, the DfE’s consultation document ‘Schools that work for everyone’ was at the centre of a political storm regarding its aims to “relax the restrictions on selective education”.

The opening sentence of the Green Paper sets out “the government’s ambition to create an education system that extends opportunity to everyone, not just the privileged few”. Can the grammar school renaissance really improve social mobility for all?

In his article for The Guardian, ‘Grammar schools might be a leg up for working-class children’, author and journalist Tim Lott  voices agreement in part with the role of selective education in social mobility. Drawing on his own experience, Mr Lott said: “I developed the feeling that I was part of a group of which there were certain hopes and expectations. This has been a powerful force in my life. I may have come from a household where no books lined the shelves, where we read the Daily Express and listened to Radio 2, but my school helped me believe I could move beyond these parameters. This had nothing to do with academic ability and everything to do with confidence.”

Writer and broadcaster Mary Dejevsky also pointed out that it is “perverse in the extreme to encourage school diversity and choice to the point of allowing pretty much anyone to set up a new “free” school, then to allow selection on all sorts of criteria – sports, music, etc. – but to ban absolutely the most basic selection of all: by academic ability”.

Image credit: Wikimedia

While proponents of selective education, such as Tim Lott and Mary Dejevsky have outlined the merits of grammar schools, it appears that Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw is fervently against such a system. Branding claims that the new wave of grammar schools will propel poorer pupils to the higher echelons of society as “palpable tosh and nonsense”, Sir Wilshaw was quick to dismiss returns to selective education as a “profoundly retrograde step”.


In a speech at London Councils’ education conference, Sir Wilshaw commended schools in the capital for leading the way in “narrowing the attainment gap between rich and poor”, as well as maintaining their status as “the top performing region across all key stages when it comes to the performance of children eligible for free school meals”.

Outspoken as ever, the Ofsted Chief noted that the remarkable rise of London schools “made a mockery of the claim that opening up many grammar schools is the key to unlocking the potential of disadvantaged children and to boosting social mobility”.

Such pointed comments make one wonder:  why is the Chief Inspector sceptical of the role grammar schools could play in achieving social mobility?

Sir Wilshaw’s cynicism appears to be related to discrepancies in attainment gaps in areas with grammar schools compared to areas without selection: “In Kent [which has selection] the gap in attainment between free-school-meals and non-free-school-meals pupils at key stage 4 is 34 points. If you go to inner London where there are no grammar schools, the gap is 14 points, so it is socially divisive.”

Recalling his days at Mossbourne Academy, the former headteacher also noted that he would have been “furious” if a grammar school opened up next to his school, as it would have “taken away those youngsters who set the tone of the school… If the grammar schools had siphoned off those top 20 percent, we would have floundered”.

The DfE Green Paper outlines a range of mechanisms to ensure that bright disadvantaged pupils are targeted by universities, independent schools, grammar schools and new selective schools. Such initiatives include raising the number of available places for pupils from lower-income families, creating sponsorship programmes with underperforming schools and supporting teaching in minority subjects which state schools struggle to make viable, such as further maths, coding, and languages such as Mandarin.

Image credit: Wikipedia

As Spectator journalist and free school founder Toby Young notes, “it’s the impact of increased selection on those children who don’t get into grammars that’s the worry”. It is certainly concerning that there is not a single reference to special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) within the 36- page consultation document. Two Conservative MPs also asked for reassurances from Education Secretary Justine Greening that the plans would not negatively impact on pupils that don’t go to grammar schools – suggesting that the document does not do enough to quell concerns.

Coinciding with the publication date of the Green Paper, a report released by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) sets out a stark analysis of social mobility and grammar schools. The report states: “It does appear that those who attend grammar schools do, on average, somewhat better than similar children in the comprehensive system. On the other hand, those in selective areas who don’t get into grammar schools do worse than they would in a comprehensive system.”

The IFS analysis cuts to the heart of the debate on grammar schools – how can a government which aims to “create an education system that extends opportunity to everyone, not just the privileged few”, justify policy decisions which could damage the life chances of the children who do not manage to pass entrance tests for selective schools?

The report recommends that research should be conducted into understanding the issues which lead to poor pupil outcomes, such as “lower quality teaching, fewer resources, negative peer group effects, or unduly low expectations”, to ensure that pupils who do not get into selective schools will not suffer as a result, which makes more sense than introducing controversial policy reform to an unstable and weary sector.

Former Conservative minister and member of the Council of the IFS, Lord David Willetts is a vocal critic of the plan to overrule the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act, which forbids the establishment of new selective schools.

Image credit: Wikimedia

Speaking ahead of Justine Greening’s announcement of the Green Paper, Lord Willetts said: “We need a social mobility strategy that includes all the stages of education, throughout our lives. It has to include competitive pressures on schools to improve their performance – and not simply by selecting the kids who are going to do best.”

Delving deeper into the underlying problems associated with social mobility in his article for The Guardian, Lord Willetts pointed out that the social mobility seen in the “golden age” of grammar schools in the 1950s and 1960s, was due to a rise in ‘white-collar’ jobs, rather than selective education.

He wrote: “The decline of steady jobs in industry for school leavers and the expansion of higher education as the pre-eminent route to well-paid jobs has meant that the academic performance of your secondary school matters more than ever…

“It is the urgent need to get your child into the schools that get them into the prestigious universities that has led to the parental arms race which eventually feeds through to higher house prices around the primary schools that feed the secondary schools that feed the universities.”

During her session at the House of Commons on 12 September, Education Secretary Justine Greening defended the Green Paper plans by saying: “If we are going to ensure that ours is at least a country where everybody can do their best, wherever they start, we have to be prepared at least to have a debate about how we will make that happen.”

Let’s hope that Ms Greening’s intentions are to open up a debate about the best way of extending opportunities to all children, “not just the privileged few”.

To find out more about Theresa May’s education policies and the Green Paper ‘Schools that work for everyone’, read our latest edition of The Brief.


DfE (2016) ‘Schools that work for everyone government consultation’

Mary Dejevsky (2016) ‘Theresa May is right, we need more selective schooling – the brightest have suffered for long enough’, <> [Accessed: 19 September 2016]

John Dickens (2016) ‘Backlash over ‘schools that work for everyone’ as grammar plan title’, <> [Accessed: 19 September 2016]

Tim Lott (2016) ‘Grammar schools might be a leg up for working-class children’, <> [Accessed: 19 September 2016]

Hannah Richardson (2016) ‘Grammar schools help poor claim is ‘tosh’ says Ofsted chief Wilshaw’, <> [Accessed: 19 September 2016]

Luke Sibieta (2016) ‘Institute for Fiscal Studies: Can grammar schools improve social mobility?’, <> [Accessed: 19 September 2016]

TES (2016) ‘Wilshaw: new wave of grammar schools would take country backwards’, <> [Accessed: 19 September 2016]

Peter Walker (2016) ‘Grammar row: education system should focus on social mobility, says Willetts’, <> [Accessed: 19 September 2016]

David Willets (2016) ‘The arguments for and against grammar schools both miss the point’, <> [Accessed: 19 September 2016]

Toby Young (2016) ‘Theresa May may see off Tory grammar school rebels, but her plans won’t survive unscathed’,<> [Accessed: 19 September 2016]


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