Despite all three main political parties now broadly supporting non- selective education, the issue remains controversial with many commentators who claim the return of grammar schools would raise standards and social mobility. In my view, the evidence suggests neither would be improved.
Supporters of selection usually ignore secondary modern schools, while taking the excellence of grammars for granted. That aside, exactly how good were grammar schools in that "golden age" from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, before the arrival of comprehensives supposedly wreaked social and academic havoc?
One common error is to portray the results of high-achieving direct grant schools, such as Manchester Grammar School and Bradford Grammar School, attended by fewer than 10 per cent of selected pupils, as typical of all grammars.
In 1959, grammar school pupils represented the brightest fifth of their age group, yet nearly 40 per cent failed to pass more than three O-levels. Complacency seems to have been endemic. In one Dorset grammar inspected by HMI in 1956, a third of pupils left with no O-levels, yet the report concluded that this school, which took only the brightest 17 per cent, was "good".
Nevertheless, concern about underachievement was present, even then. A supporter of grammar schools, GH Bantock argued that "they had to pay more attention to their lower streams", a remark clearly relevant to my own Sheffield grammar, which was described as "a good school which has put its house in order" by HMI, but where fewer than 15 per cent of the "B" and "C" streams (still the equivalent of today's top comprehensive sets) passed five O-levels between 1957 and 1961. This had nothing to do with early leaving: they relate only to pupils who had stayed on and passed at least one exam. No strident claims about exams being harder can explain away these results.
If exam results hardly support claims of academic excellence, neither did HMI's comments at the time. In researching my recent book, I examined hundreds of inspection reports, and discovered that the proportion of grammar schools in the 1950s that inspectors found unsatisfactory (around 20 per cent) was as high as that of secondary moderns. Although most grammars and secondary moderns were good, the proportion of poor schools was far higher than today.
"Years of difficulty lie ahead" was the inspectors' view of a Cheshire grammar, while they found that "problems with education in the widest sense remain" at a Liverpool school. Above all, the low expectations and wastage of talent in secondary moderns - where at least 15 per cent of children were capable of taking O-levels, although only 4 per cent were entered even for one subject - was appalling.
Supporters of selection point to standards in today's grammar schools, at home or abroad, as proof of the superiority of the system. But the performance of grammars cannot be judged in isolation. Selective areas such as Kent and Lincolnshire have large numbers of poorly attaining schools and here, as elsewhere, many so-called comprehensive schools have their intakes skewed by neighbouring grammars. Nor do international comparisons support the selective case. The PISA study of school performance across the world found in 2006 that "early differentiation of students by school is not associated with better results overall". Finland, the highest-achieving country in most international studies, is fully comprehensive.
The argument that, in the past, selective education provided poor children with a ladder of opportunity compared with comprehensives today is equally dubious. The percentage of the population deemed working class by the Registrar General 50 years ago - 75 per cent - was three times that of today. So to accurately compare the academic achievement of working-class children today with those in the 1950s, the performance of the poorest third from then, those from unskilled and semi-skilled families, needs to be analysed. In reality, only a very small number went to grammar schools and many who did ended up with no, or few, qualifications.
A 1950s Ministry of Education study found that fewer than 0.3 per cent of pupils leaving with two A-levels were from the unskilled working class. Even among the top grammar school streams, a third from the poorest backgrounds left without an O-level. Many poorer children left even before taking public examinations.
Even before the 1944 Act, a child at grammar school was often a sign of an already upwardly mobile working-class family. Rhodes Boyson, a minister under Margaret Thatcher, was portrayed as the archetypal poor boy who succeeded solely as a result of his grammar school education. But what was cause and what effect? His father was a full-time union official and councillor who, unusually, owned his house before the war. He was even chairman of governors at Rhodes' school.
In 2005, a report from the LSE claimed that British society had become less equal since the late 1950s. The researchers looked at two cohorts of boys, born in 1958 and 1970 respectively, and claimed that social mobility was more limited for those born in 1970 than for those born in 1958, in marked contrast to Germany, Canada and Scandinavia, where mobility across all income groups had increased.
Many commentators blamed this on the abolition of grammars. Nick Cohen wrote "long live grammar schools" in The Observer, while Tim Luckhurst in The Times argued that "only a blend of ideological zeal and intellectual dishonesty" could now defend the comprehensive system.
The report suggested that a key issue in social mobility was the decision whether to stay on at school or not at 16. So the crucial dates were not the years the past pupils were born but when they received their secondary education and when they decided to stay on after the fifth form. For the 1958 cohort, the year they turned 16 was 1974.
By then, more than 70 per cent of pupils were in comprehensive schools. The neat assumption that those born in 1958 would be educated within a selective system and those born in 1970 a comprehensive one is simply wrong. Both groups were highly likely to have attended comprehensives.
Those who use the report to attack comprehensive education also ignore the fact that the countries said to have the greatest social mobility, the Scandinavian nations and Canada, are all fully comprehensive.
The debate will continue and, of course, there are outstanding selective schools and poor comprehensives. But those who dismiss supporters of comprehensive education as dishonest or zealots should revisit the evidence before rushing to judgment.
- Adrian Elliott is the author of `State Schools since the 1950s: the Good News' (Trentham Books)
Final myth next week "Teachers today neglect the basics to peddle left- wing, PC propaganda"
- People who have argued for a return to grammar schools this year include former shadow home secretary David Davis, who said they were "the greatest instrument for social mobility ever invented".
- A 1950s Ministry of Education study found fewer than 0.3 per cent of pupils leaving with two A-levels were from unskilled working class.
- Among those in the top grammar school streams, a third from the poorest backgrounds left without a single O-level.
- Research published by the Sutton Trust this year, which gathered data on the top quarter of academic achievers at 11, found under 2 per cent of children in grammar schools received free school meals, compared with 5.5 per cent in non-selective schools.