Debating the grammar of social mobility

In a parliamentary debate back in 2003, then Prime Minister Tony Blair traded verbal blows with then leader of the Conservatives Michael Howard about the ability of students from across different backgrounds to access education. “This grammar school boy will take no lessons from that public school [a form of private education in Britain] boy on the importance of children from a less-privileged background gaining access to university,” declared Mr. Howard, in one of the best remembered comments of his time as leader, that sought to pitch the Conservatives as the party of social mobility.

The grammar schools Mr. Howard was referring to are highly selective secondary schools in Britain that date back to the 1940s. They had originally been seen as a means of enabling people from humble backgrounds to achieve their full potential but had over the years faced criticism for, in fact, entrenching divisions by benefiting the children of the privileged. Many of them were phased out in the 1960s and 1970s and just over 160 remain across the country.

However, they have regularly entered policy debates over the years, often representing some of the ideological divisions at the heart of British politics: the need to provide protections and opportunities for all versus the need to provide opportunities to excel. Even within the Conservative party, it remained controversial, with David Cameron backing off from reforms that would have enabled a further roll-out.

Making U.K. a ‘meritocracy’

It’s therefore significant that in September last year, in one of her first major policy announcements after taking over as Prime Minister, Theresa May pledged to end the ban on the creation of new grammar schools, which she warned sacrificed “children’s potential because of dogma and ideology… This is about being unapologetic for our belief in social mobility and making this country a true meritocracy”, she declared. It is thought that many of the 140 schools due to open with new government funding could opt to include academically selective criteria.

Some Conservatives have sought to pitch this selective education programme as an essential component of post-Brexit Britain, which would help create the skilled domestic work force that the country will need as it charts its course outside the European Union.

Social mobility has become an increasing area of focus, with a report published last year suggesting that inequalities in social mobility did not pit the north versus the south of England but London and its suburbs against much of the rest of the country. There has been evidence that grammar schools have done little to improve social equality. In a report last year the Institute of Fiscal Studies said just 3% of students at grammar schools were eligible for free school meals — a widely used measure of poverty in Britain, while an expansion of grammar schools in Northern Ireland widened inequalities.

“While grammar school pupils generally achieve well, this is at the expense of the majority of children who do not get a grammar school place,” said the National Union of Teachers in response to a government consultation. “Why does the Prime Minister want to expand a system that can only let children down?” declared Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during a session of Prime Ministers questions that largely focussed on the issue of grammar schools last year. With Britain heading into a highly ideologically charged electoral campaign, issues such as grammar schools are likely to figure prominently in the debate about the shape of post-Brexit Britain.

With 140 of them due to open using new government funding, the exclusionary grammar schools are likely to figure in debates about the shape of post-Brexit U.K.

Recommended for you