Editorial - Grammars did precious little to aid social mobility

3rd July 2009 at 01:00
Tory claims that they were 'escalators of opportunity' are driven by nostalgia, not evidence

The past is a very pleasant country. Warm beer. Sunday cricket. Jam roly-polys. Respectful lads and a total absence of ladettes. No traffic cameras or Simon Cowell. But Harry Secombe and Muffin the Mule. And grammar schools.

These wonderful institutions gave a young "tousled" and "shoe-scuffed" David Davis and thousands of working-class kids like him the chance to leave poverty behind. "The simple truth," the Conservative MP wrote last week, "is that grammar schools were the greatest instrument of social mobility ever invented." Unfortunately, they were wrecked, sacrificed on the altar of mixed-ability comprehensives by egalitarian zealots. As a consequence, social mobility declined markedly from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.

It is tempting to dismiss this polemic as a piece of political theatre from the Tories' own Norma Desmond, designed to embarrass those thoroughly modern Cameroons. Except Mr Davis's prejudices are shared by thousands on the left, many of whose greatest stars - Barbara Castle, Denis Healey, Harolds Wilson and Pinter - were humble beneficiaries of a grammar school education. Would they have shone as brightly on a comprehensive stage?

Unfortunately for Mr Davis et al, the idea that grammar schools were "great escalators to opportunity for poorer children" is, to use a non-grammarian phrase, utter bollocks. A few certainly benefited, but not as many as nostalgia credits. Mr Davis cites the LSESutton Trust survey of 2005, which claimed to detect less social mobility among those born in 1970 than those born in 1958. But as Adrian Elliott has pointed out in his excellent State Schools Since the 1950s, those born in 1958 would have spent the majority of their school days in a system that was largely comprehensive by the early 1970s. Any change cannot be laid at its door.

Moreover, the notion that grammars alleviated social disparities rather than entrenched them is simply untrue. In the 1950s, English grammars accounted for at most 20 per cent of all secondary pupils. Of those, over half were from the middle class, which made up barely a fifth of the population then. Snobbery rather than academic achievement accounted for much of the disproportion. Even among pupils who achieved the same 11-plus scores, middle-class children gained admission to grammars at up to four times the rate of their poorer peers. If admitted, working-class pupils were often disdained, not encouraged - which probably explains why almost a quarter left without any O-levels. And the vast majority - almost all working class - who languished in secondary moderns - were "doomed", as one newspaper put it, because of a decision made at the ludicrously early age of 11.

Today the few remaining grammars are even more socially restrictive than their predecessors (page 10). The inescapable truth was and is that grammar schools are defined more by their social exclusivity than their academic excellence. Their continued existence owes much to the intransigence of deluded romantics like Mr Davis and little to common sense. They should be abolished.

Editor E gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today