Skip to main content

'The persistent, and wrong, idea that grammars aid social mobility and comprehensives stifle it just won't go away'

News article image

"But what about Ian?" the Tory delegate kept asking me. "What would have happened to Ian if he hadn't been able to go to grammar school?"

Ian was a super bright boy who had gone on to become a super successful adult. So successful, in fact, that he had become friends with the upper middle-class baby-boomer talking to me in the aftermath of a Conservative Party conference fringe event I had just chaired.

In fact, the event itself had been light on grammar school questions, which is perhaps surprising given that we were then awaiting education secretary Nicky Morgan's decision on the first new one for 50 years.

State education campaigner Fiona Miller and Policy Exchange's Jonathan Simons had successfully shut down the issue early in our session, correctly pointing out that there was no evidence that selection at 11 aided social mobility and that, in fact, grammar schools reinforced the social status quo.

But that didn't stop my new friend making a beeline for the panel at the final whistle to tell us all about Ian.

It would be easy to dismiss this anecdote as the ramblings of a loon from the nether-reaches of the Tory Party.

But unless the current educational establishment attacks such arguments head on, they are never going to go away — because the story of Ian is illustrative of a disconnect in the national discourse around 11-plus.

For too much of the mainstream media, and around too many dinner tables, the assumption is that Ian succeeded in life because he experienced selective education, and would have failed if he'd been born a few years later and been automatically enrolled in the local comprehensive school.

For way too many, the assumption is that a working class kid from the 1950s or 1960s who did well, did well BECAUSE they went to grammar school, while any successful working class kid who has succeeded in the period since did so DESPITE attending a comprehensive.

And while this may seem bonkers to anyone who works in education and schools — and mildly offensive to Britain's teachers — it is an irritatingly persistent argument that shows no sign of going anywhere. 

Indeed, Ms Morgan's decision this week could open the floodgates for applications for a new tranche of new grammars. Added to this are rumours that won't go away that Boris Johnson is going to go all out for the 11-plus when he finally has his tilt at the Conservative Party leadership in a few years. 

So the next time someone tells you about their friend Ian, or someone like him, don't let them get away with it.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you