12/09/2016 11:43 BST | Updated 13/09/2017 06:12 BST

Could Grammar Schools Ever Be Good For Poverty?

Michael Kempf via Getty Images

Suddenly discussions about education are all about whether to increase the role of selection and grammar schools. Last year I called this an unwelcome distraction from the real business of improving educational attainment for children from low income backgrounds across the country. The new row has the potential to be much more damaging.

It is striking how much consensus there is among experts that more selection would damage social mobility and the life chances of children from poorer backgrounds, across organisations as diverse as the centre-right Reform Think Tank, the Socialist Educational Association and the government's own Social Mobility Tsar.

The argument of selection supporters is now that all of the evidence that grammar school systems are bad for children in poverty is irrelevant because they are going to design a new system which is 'inclusive'. So is there really any way of increasing selection that could be good for children who are currently disadvantaged? The two key questions are:

  1. Who will get in? and
  2. What will happen to those who fail the exam?

So far all of the attention has been on the first question. Current grammar school clearly fail this test. Less than 3% of grammar school students receive free school meals (an imperfect but widely used indicator of low income), compared to 18% of students in non-grammar schools in the same area. Children on free school meals are half as likely to get into a grammar school as a better-off child with the same test scores.

The idea that the tests could be changed to be less susceptible to tutoring or that more support for parents could improve this woeful record ignores two fundamental facts:

  • First, poverty affects children's development and attainment tests as early as three. By the time children are five, those from poorer backgrounds are already well behind those from better off households. Any test given to 11 year olds will be measuring the cumulative effects of their home, school and other experiences, not simply 'innate ability'.
  • Second, previous attempts to make admissions 'tutor-proof' and less unequal have failed. However, the test is designed, parents with more resources - financial, social and educational - will be better able to help their children pass it. Internationally the pattern is almost uniform - countries with selection at 11 have education systems which are more socio-economically segregated than those which don't.

The second question is arguably even more important. In a selective education system, more children will generally fail the test than pass it; currently there are three or four times as many children who fail the test than who pass it. In the UK that children who do not get into grammars have worse attainment than similar children in non-selective areas. Proponents of selection rather airily agree that 'of course' the non-grammar schools in a selective system also need to deliver excellence. However, we have yet to see a system where this is achieved. Creaming off the students with the highest test scores will inevitably leave non-grammar schools with student bodies with lower average attainment. In the UK currently, schools with more deprived intakes find it harder to attract the best teachers and leaders: Ofsted reports that schools in deprived areas are four times as likely to have poor leadership than those in better off areas. It is hard to see how this situation will be improved by creating more schools which take in the highest performing pupils and leaving the rest in schools which then find it harder to reach the required standards.

Theresa May is right to say that our education system already selects - through house prices and admissions procedures. This could be reduced through trialling measures such as banding and lotteries are often suggested although neither is yet proven. But more grammar schools would only reinforce it. Those who could afford it would be able to buy a house near the new grammars just as they can with high performing academies, free schools or local authority run schools. And then there would be a second layer of selection on top.

The Prime Minister has committed to creating a Britain that works for all and fighting poverty: it is hard to imagine any way of increasing selection in education which will help either of those goals. This week the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a detailed strategy setting out practical steps to do both:

  • Improve children's prospects through high quality childcare and raising standards in all schools
  • Strengthen families and support parenting and couple's relationships
  • Help more people into better jobs and reboot Universal Credit so that it provides a decent safety net and makes work pay
  • Reduce the cost of living by building more affordable housing and working with regulators and business to make markets work fairly for low income consumers
  • Give town halls and majors the powers and incentives to create inclusive growth in their areas
  • Tackle the scandal of 5 million adults without basic literacy and numeracy skills

Bringing back grammar schools might make some very happy, but it won't increase opportunity for the vast majority of those who need it most. The Prime Minister should save her political capital for the battles which those people really need her to fight.