The Tories are harking back to a mythical ‘golden age’ of grammar schools

by Angela Rayner

Conservative Voice, a Tory activist group, has officially launched their campaign to lift the ban on opening new grammar schools, introduced by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair 18 years ago.

If prime minister Theresa May is serious about her recent rhetoric on the steps of Downing Street, when she said that her government would do everything it could to help “anyone, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you”, then she will halt this divisive campaign in its tracks.

Some Tories argue for more grammar schools as engines of social mobility, which propel kids from working-class, low and middle income families up the social ladder. But the facts argue otherwise.

The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that amongst those identified as high achievers at an early age, children who are eligible for free school meals or who live in poorer neighbourhoods are significantly less likely to attend a grammar school than their better off classmates.

There are 163 grammar schools left in the country. In 161 of them, fewer than 10% of pupils are eligible for free school meals.

According to research by the House of Commons library, around 2% of children at grammar schools are eligible for free school meals.

So they are not being drawn from the poorest backgrounds.

It takes some gall to suggest that grammar schools, which divide children into ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ at the tender age of 11, is somehow good for social mobility.

Some Tories argue that grammar schools allow the tiny minority of kids from low-income backgrounds to shoot to the top of society, as perfect examples of social mobility.

Again, this is simply not true.

In the heyday of grammar schools, just 0.3% of grammar school pupils with two A-levels were from the skilled working class. A measly three children out of every thousand.

A third of all students in grammar schools who were from the most deprived backgrounds, left without a single O-Level.

That’s why Labour got rid of them – because they were failing all our children. They sowed division in our society, left too many young children feeling second best, and put a cap on aspiration, ambition and opportunity for millions.

They left no room for late developers, or children whose family or social circumstances later changed.

And they failed to provide Britain with the dynamic, skilled workforce that we still need.

The professed belief that new grammar schools will suddenly take on huge numbers of working class kids and deliver fantastic results is patently absurd.

David Cameron said that those in his party who wanted to open more grammars were “splashing about in the shallow end of the educational debate.”

If only the party he used to lead would listen to him.

I welcome Theresa May’s words on social mobility, and what she, and her new Education Secretary Justine Greening, have said about education being the best engine we have for social mobility. I couldn’t agree more.

But we need action, not warm words. Rather than harking back to a mythical ‘golden age’ of grammar schools, the Tories must work tirelessly to improve every school in the country, to work with teachers to drive up standards, and to give our schools the investment they need in the 21st Century.

That’s what Labour stands for.

Selection belongs in the dustbin of history and has no place in modern society. There must be no going back.

Angela Rayner MP is shadow secretary of state for education

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17 Responses to “The Tories are harking back to a mythical ‘golden age’ of grammar schools”

  1. John P Reid says:

    I imagine people who voted for Cameron, thought they’d have 5 years of a one nation Tory, Theresa May ,is putting together a very itht wing government t, once the leadership is over, she should go to the electorate as this wasn’t what they voted for, unfortunately it’ll be a Tory landslide

    If Angela Rayner wants to stop this she should resign from the shadow cabinet

  2. Mike Stallard says:

    Angela you said: “I was a NEET – not in education, employment or training – and I had no GCSEs at grade A to C; and, as I said, I had a baby at 16. School, for me, was not a place where you went to be educated, but a place where you got away from your parents for a couple of hours while they got some respite from you, and where you were able to see your mates…
    “My mum could not read or write, so it was difficult for her to give me the ability to be school-ready.”

    You do not understand what it is to be a scholar. It takes devotion, peace and quiet,parental support, and ruthless elitism – you are determined like an Olympic athlete – to be the very best. Unless the right (not the best) scholars are focused on such people, they will be wasted. And the country and the Labour Party need them desperately now.

    Do not, as someone who has fought their way to the top (“If only they could see me now.”) belittle this. You are a living example. Imagine how frustrated you would be if really nolisy and obstructive people blocked you all the way up.

  3. landed peasant says:

    Please keep in mind while you are preaching Angela that it was your mob that did away with the assisted place scheme which was a big social mobility driver.

  4. Disenfranchised says:

    And what does Labour MP, Angela Rayner, think of Labour MPs who send their children to expensive private schools?

    Diane Abbot’s hypocrisy is well documented, but now we have Stephen Kinnock to add

    Labour, no different to the rest.

  5. Simon says:

    What we need in education is support from politicians, support that provides schools with the policies to deal with unsupportive parents who refuse to engage with education. We need to educate the parents in many instances. This is the divide that prevents many communities to engage with education. Misunderstanding of modern education methods and supporting young learners from backgrounds and homes that are in severe difficulties, poverty or otherwise. The educated need to stand together and invite the blockers, exposure to new thinking to broaden everyone’s experience of education. Policies to support both teachers and parents, moving forward, for the benefit of the U.K.

  6. Tafia says:

    Nothing wrong with the idea of streamed education. In fact it’s the best thing to do. And if that means having schools that you get to by passing an exam then so be it.

  7. James Martin says:

    The social mobility argument is the one you hear most often from those who want a return to grammar schools, and often from ex-grammar working class pupils who did do well later on. However, the key element to this that constantly gets forgotten is that those working class kids who did do well at the height of the grammars did so in the context of the 1960s and a rapidly expanding capitalist economy where there were lots of opportunities available for social mobility whether grammars existed or not. In fact comprehensive schools had as great if not greater success in this area before social mobility routes were largely shut off following the economic problems from the 1970s onwards.

    But what gets me the most about these grammar supporters is that they are never honest enough to say that they want a return to second best secondary moderns which are the flip side of any selective grammar school system.

    In many ways though the grammar debate is a sideshow. The much more serious problem is the break up of state education and the loss of democratic oversight and control together with increasing roles for the private sector in English academies, and the next Labour government must halt the expansion of academies and free schools and bring existing ones back into statutory national pay and conditions of service and under local authority democratic control.

  8. TCO says:

    “In the heyday of grammar schools, just 0.3% of grammar school pupils with two A-levels were from the skilled working class. A measly three children out of every thousand.”

    In the heyday of grammar schools there were millions of apprenticeship jobs which were the culturally-valued route to progression of the skilled working class, who looked on “book-learning” with suspicion.

    Grammar schools provide the haven of a supportive environment for the academically able from backgrounds who despise education.

  9. Bob Crossley says:

    I agree that reintroducing selection at 11 is a bad idea, but just saying that doesn’t get us very far. Nor does a generalised exhortation to “work harder”.

    All there is here is the airy suggestion that the Government should “work with teachers to drive up standards”. Well, yes. But how?

    The system is failing. Where is the anlysis to tell us why? Where is the plan to fix it? Not here for sure.

  10. Ydoethur says:

    But Labour didn’t abolish the grammar schools. In fact, the two significant phases of reform were 1955-61 and 1970-74, with the latter period seeing the greatest single number of conversions. I think Rayner will find that a certain Margaret Thatcher was education secretary at that time. Of course, she can claim Thatcher for Labour if she wants to, but…

    I went to a comprehensive and I am now a teacher. Comprehensives are very good at doing what the government want them to do. That is, teach the largest possible number of children a basic amount of stuff in the cheapest way. They are more useless than Jeremy Corbyn’s brain cells when it comes to developing higher cognitive skills among the most able. That is partly because of the destructive anti-intellectual culture displayed by the less able, like Rayner herself, and partly because huge classes of widely mixed ability mean that in practice the pace is too slow to go into greater depth for those who could cope.

    That is why I left school with ABC at A-level while many less intelligent contemporaries at the grammar school got AAA. The minority who motivate themselves to do well in such circumstances and have the skill to hide it still emerge, but they are few. That is why grammar school and private school alumni dominate the top professions.

    The cheaper way around this is grammar schools so the brightest are hived off and given a very high level of education. Unfortunately due to our anti-intellectual culture few working class parents opt for them, which is why they are dominated by the middle classes. The effective option would be a 50% cut in class sizes and a reduction in school size to a maximum of 800. But that would be expensive.

    Unfortunately because neither option is acceptable to the chattering classes we aregoing to be doomed to carry on failing 90%nof our children. Which is disgusting and reprehensible and very much a Labour dog-in-the-manger way of going about things.

    Then they wonder why they are called the Nasty Party.

  11. Ydoethur says:

    Incidentally last year the President of the Royal Historical Society did a very interesting series of articles on the conversions of grammars to compa and how it was the middle classes who dominated the switch because they wanted in effect ‘grammar schools for all’. It was published in their Transactions and will be in the British Library or the IHR if Ms Rayner wants to improve her knowledge before she shoots her mouth of on the basis of a mythical Labour move to egalitarianism again.

  12. madasafish says:

    This is unconvincing: not because I support grammar schools – I don’t and was educated in Scotland where I lived – but because teh English educational system does not work well and has not done so for decades.

    There is a presumption that everyone deserves a chance and we are all equal and thus should give equal opportunities for all.

    We should not. We need an educational system that requires excellence , and hard work. And makes those who don’t want to work and learn are encouraged to do so. We are competing in a competitive world and other education systems are far better.

    Strangely enough, it is not mentioned.

    We have had 40 years plus of trying to be nice to failing pupils. And achieved nothing.

  13. Dave says:

    Can anyone clarify where the following stats came from – I don’t think it’s the HoC library report?

    “In the heyday of grammar schools, just 0.3% of grammar school pupils with two A-levels were from the skilled working class. A measly three children out of every thousand.

    A third of all students in grammar schools who were from the most deprived backgrounds, left without a single O-Level”.

  14. One problem with grammar schools was the 11+. Children who failed it (mostly boys) never got a second chance, and they could have failed because of poor primary school teaching. I knew a group of boys who had failed the 11+ and were sent to Kilburn Secondary Modern school where the headmaster utterly refused to allow them to take GCE. Their parents got together and arranged private coaching for them and they all passed GCE with flying colours, went on to take A levels. One of their number, Harvey Goldstein, went on to university and then became a professor at the Institute of Education and devoted his life to abolishing the 11+! You can read his book about it.

  15. Well, even if only by age, I am one of the disappearing working class kids that got to grammar school, although leaving after O levels. Did those schools help increase social mobility? I think it would be hard to argue against that they did. The reasons why social mobility was very obviously reduced after they went is a whole other matter though, a can of worms that does need to be opened as it shows the problems of inequality in post-1970s Britain.

    As the grammar schools went we also saw an increase in the wealth of the middle classes, many of whom could now pay for private or semi-private education for their kids. I don’t know where the figures are, but I’m sure someone could find what i suspect is a large increase of kids in this form of education since that period.

    Of course the downside is that the social mobility is reduced to kids having the chance to go up a couple of minor levels in the middle class rather than kids jumping from the working class to the middle class. Another downside is that the kids on the move owe the move to money rather than intelligence for which we are paying for now in the leadership of politics, business and other areas.

    If we really want to tackle the problem of social mobility we need to look at forms of positive discrimination. The fake ‘equality of opportunity’ is not enough, real ‘equality of outcome’ is needed. There is an easy way of starting this off for a government well intentioned in this field because one place such positive discrimination could be introduced is in civil service hiring. Another place closer to home would be in the selection of parliamentary candidates for the party. A bit of positive discrimination, not just for women, but for working class members, would maybe make it more difficult for the red princes and princesses to gobble up safe seats.

  16. Tafia says:

    Disenfranchised, with regards Stephen Kinnock, you’ll enjoy this.

    And with regards the Kinnock clan in general, you’ll enjoy this even more. Some very interesting connections no? (scroll down to the section ‘THE KINNOCK FAMILY AND FRIENDS’)

  17. john P Reid says:

    good link ,tafia especially the second article

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