Ministers’ plans to expand the number of grammar schools could make the country’s deep social mobility problem “worse, not better”, the man charged with tackling the issue has warned.
Labour MP Alan Milburn, who is chair of the government's Social Mobility Commission has called for ministers to “rethink” its proposals for more selective schools and academies, if it is to tackle the issue.
In its annual 'state of the nation' report today, the commission states: “There is no evidence that reforming school structures, either by continuing the roll out of the academies programme or by introducing new grammar schools, by itself will provide an answer to England’s entrenched social mobility problem.
"Worse still, more selection in state schools could make the situation worse, not better.”
The findings are likely to go down badly with prime minister Theresa May who made the expansion of grammar schools her first major policy announcement after entering Downing Street.
But in its report, the commission states that its “greatest concern is that the positive gains for the few that attend a grammar school are outweighed by the negative effects for the majority of children in selective areas that go to other schools”.
The study shows that children in selective areas that go to grammar schools make 0.4 of a grade more progress in each subject, compared with similar students elsewhere.
But it adds that the children who do not get into grammars, those that attend “essentially secondary moderns in selective areas” make 0.2 of a grade less progress than similar students elsewhere.
The report says that the previous government’s commitment to “high standards for all children” was a benefit to social mobility.
“We do not believe, however, that proposals for more selective schools will help. Instead they are a distraction,” it adds.
Mr Milburn said “fundamental reforms” were needed elsewhere in the education system if Britain was to address the growing social mobility issue.
“The social divisions we face in Britain today impact many more people and places than the very poorest in society or the few thousand youngsters who miss out on a top university,” the former Cabinet minister said. “Whole sections of society and whole tracts of Britain feel left behind.”
“The growing sense that we have become an ‘us and them’ society – where a few unfairly entrench power and wealth to themselves – is deeply corrosive of our cohesion as a nation.”
To meet the challenges, the commission recommended that the government should:
- Narrow the attainment gap at GCSE between poorer children and their better-off classmates by two-thirds, bringing the rest of the country to the level achieved in London;
- Rethink its plans for more grammar schools and more academies;
- Make the ten lowest performing local authorities to take part in improvement programmes so that by 2020 none of those schools are Ofsted-rated inadequate and all are progressing to good;
- Reform the training and distribution of teachers and create new incentives – including better starting pay – to get more of the highest quality teachers into the schools that need them.
According to the report, just 5 per cent of pupils in receipt of free school meals will gain five A grades at GCSE, while 1.2 million 16 year olds, disproportionately from poorer households, left school without five good GCSEs.
The report warned that the UK was not just suffering from social division but that there was a growing geographical divide between the big cities, particularly London, and towns and counties.
The document revealed that not a single child in receipt of free school meals growing up in the North East went on to study at Oxbridge after leaving school in 2010.
It also highlighted that children growing up in the country’s most deprived areas were 27 times more likely to attend a school judged to be inadequate by Ofsted.
A government spokesperson said: “We want to make this a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. Whether it's education, jobs, or housing, this means giving families more control over their lives - and doing more to help those who are just managing.
"As the PM said on the steps of Downing Street, this Government is committed to fighting injustice wherever it arises – and ensuring that everyone in our country has the opportunity to go as far as their talents will take them. We will consider the recommendations in the report."
Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES on Twitter and like TES on Facebook