The £50 million for grammar school extensions, announced by education secretary Damian Hinds last week, has been condemned as a blatant ploy to appease Tory voters. With most schools facing severe funding cuts, having to lay off staff and ask parents for help to buy basic supplies such as pencils and textbooks, money that exclusively supports selective education surely cannot be justified.
It’s claimed that grammar schools improve social mobility and achieve better results, but research shows this is not the case. Even the Department for Education’s own data reveals that grammar schools benefit children from wealthy and middle-class families the most.
The DfE and its ministers are keen to be seen promoting "evidence based" policies. That’s a good thing. Schools minister Nick Gibb is very happy to cite research that supports his views and condemn ideas that lack research backing, such as learning styles, as seen in a recent tweet. Evidence would appear to be important, except, it seems, when it contradicts a deeply rooted ideological belief that selective education "works". Perversely, the research evidence on grammar schools has been completely ignored.
This money, we must conclude, has been provided for other reasons. The funding will overwhelmingly benefit Conservative-led areas. The question is, what’s the lure of the grammar school for the wealthy and middle-class parents who support them most? I’d argue it’s more about social stability and the possibility of a greater advantage for the middle classes, with grammar schools offering an opportunity to break into the elite jobs and positions dominated by the privately educated. Alternatively, it’s a way of saving money on private school fees.
'Just like us'
In general, people associate with people with whom they have a lot in common. We do it all the time, consciously and subconsciously. People would like their children to play with other children "just like them". They want them to go to a school filled with other children whose parents you can envisage being "just like us". Even better, they’d like their children to get to know the children of those who have already achieved a status in society to which they would aspire.
We have an unfair system where those who have the ambition for their children and who can afford tuition can game the system. No matter how you try to produce "tutorproof" tests, it won’t work. Those determined that their son or daughter will attend a grammar school will do whatever they can to gain every advantage.
In the late 1960s, I was in primary school and after school being coached for the 11+. I have vivid memories of the coaching, the test, the stress, the brown envelope popping through the door and narrowly missing being sent to a cathedral school (to my relief) had I failed the test. I passed.
My father went to the same grammar school, but didn’t attend university. He entered the family business as a fishmonger. My time at grammar school was short-lived. After one year it closed as part of the mid-60s Labour promise to scrap selective education. I spent the rest of my school days in the local comprehensive. I was the only member of my family to attend university, even though my mother once confided in me that "university’s not for the likes of us" (she attended a secondary modern).
My parents had aspirations for their children beyond being fishmongers. My sister was helped by the relationship my father had with his bank manager – always in credit, a good business that never ran up debt. She joined the bank aged 16 and spent her entire career in banking.
Although I was never told exactly who I could play/associate with, it was clear that during my upbringing I was encouraged to make friends with "people like us" or "better" (that said, how better was defined, I could never work out as a child). My parents did what they could for their children. What they displayed was perfectly acceptable, normal behaviour in the 1960s and 70s. As they often said, "It’s not what you know, but who you know that counts". Making friends with the bank manager, was the key to getting your child a step up on the career ladder. In my case, my father knew the head of the local civil service – which I found out years later was a likely destination for me. What my parents were doing then, we are seeing now in the movement to expand grammar schools.
What this £50m fund does is fulfil the need for certain parents to group together to create social stability and a network that feeds their need to belong and to be part of a like-minded set of people. No parent should be condemned for wanting the best for their child, but a government that panders to this selectively, affording some an "opportunity" while denying much-needed funding for the majority of schools, must be condemned.
James Williams is a lecturer in education at the University of Sussex School of Education and Social Work. He tweets @edujdw