When launching the Government's green paper on schools' reform in September Justine Greening announced that by enabling new grammar schools to be built the Government were "putting the interests of working class people first and building a meritocracy". But will this be the case?
According to the Sutton Trust only 3% of pupils at England's current grammar schools receive free school meals compared to 18% in non-grammar school areas. On average, grammar schools admit four times as many children from fee-paying prep schools as children on free school meals. As the Daily Telegraph's Jeremy Warner says, current grammars offer "segregated education for the middle class".
But with only 164 grammar schools in England this is surely inevitable. There is little hope of a grammar school education for many working class kids in large parts of England as they sit outside the few catchment areas. Meanwhile many middle class families with more money are able to move into the catchment areas, often having their children privately coached to pass the 11-plus. If the Government go ahead with setting up new grammar schools across the country, especially in working class areas as many Tory MPs have recommended, would we not expect a different outcome?
There is an argument that having grammars in every large town or two would ensure that everywhere becomes a catchment area. Families will no longer have to move location to be in a position to send their children to these schools and it will no longer matter whether a child lives on a council estate - he or she will still have the opportunity to attend a grammar school. The great problem with this is that the Government had the same idea in the postwar years with the large-scale introduction of modern grammars and it failed to open up a golden age of social mobility. Up until the late 1960s there were over 1,200 grammar schools in England and Wales with around a quarter of Britain's schoolchildren in state-funded secondary education attending them. However, at their peak in the late 1950s the main beneficiaries were, even then, the sons and daughters of the middle class. The Crowther report produced in 1959 revealed that only 10% of the children of the poorest section of the population went to grammar school. This is at a time when a much higher proportion of the population would be described as working class. Of those that did get in many did not remain to do A levels. The Gurney-Dixon Report in 1954 identified that even if children of semi-skilled and unskilled workers got into grammar schools they were more likely to leave early without gaining qualifications. Two thirds of the children of unskilled workers left without three O levels.
How then can the Government make selective education compatible with increased social mobility? Toby Young has talked about a "third way" between grammars and comprehensives pointing to examples such as Ashlawn school in Rugby which selects 12 per cent of the 256 pupils admitted each year according to their performance in the 11-plus exams with the remainder being fully comprehensive. These 30 pupils are then placed in the school's "grammar scheme" where they are joined by 60 children taken from the non-selective intake. There are obvious benefits to this approach. Children are educated together in one school regardless of academic attainment and intelligence and children can move in and out of the grammar school stream without having to move to a new school and make new friends. Young asserts that this limited expansion of selection may boost social mobility. As you'd expect children at these schools do well with in their GCSE's - on average, 67 per cent gained 5A*-C compared to a national average of 57.1 per cent. For disadvantaged children the figure is 46.6 per cent, with the national average being 36.7 per cent.
It remains to be seen what approach the Government will take to expanding selective education given the difficulty the prime minister will face in securing a majority for legislation to end the ban on new selective schools. What is clear is that it cannot maintain that grammar schools present, or past, are engines of social mobility.