Neil Carmichael: We all want to boost social mobility. But grammar schools are not the answer

Posted On: 
30th September 2016

The opening of more grammar schools will do little to address the challenges facing British education, writes select committee chair Neil Carmichael 

As a Conservative MP who represents a constituency in which two of the remaining 163 grammar schools in the country are based, and also served as chair of governors of one of those schools, you would think that my natural inclination would be to welcome wholeheartedly the prospect of lifting the ban on grammars. 

But as someone who has spent my whole time in parliament studying and reflecting on the educational challenges this country faces I share little of the enthusiasm of some of my colleagues.

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I think all parliamentarians on the education select committee share the aspiration of the prime minister when she said: “We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you”.

The referendum on Europe has brought the challenges facing the UK into sharp relief.  I believe the next few years will be tough but, if we can confront the causes of the productivity gap between the UK and our competitors, take action to improve numeracy and literacy in our workforce, improve social mobility in order to make the best use of the talents and be ready to make the necessary sacrifices, we can all try and make a success of the decision to leave the European Union.

Without confronting these issues, all of which have existed in one shape or another, before and during our membership of the EU, our future outside will be daunting. 

In their 1960s heyday grammars taught a quarter of our pupils. Today they represent a tiny minority, mainly in leafy middle class suburbs.

The opening of a few more grammar schools will do little to address many of the other issues in the modern education world.

Many of the best teachers, not unreasonably, are attracted to the existing grammars, and their neighbourhoods provide pleasant places to live. On current trends, more grammars will do little to help in staff recruitment in less desirable parts of the country.

An argument has been advanced that placing new grammars in areas of social deprivation is the way forward, but this underestimates their wide catchment area.

Attracting the best staff lies behind the fact that grammars get better results than their comprehensive counterparts. There are acres of educational evidence supporting the importance of recruitment and retention of good staff being the driver behind consistent improvement across all schools.

Advocates of grammars talk of them providing a ladder of social mobility for the brightest children from poorer backgrounds. It may have been then, if only that was the case now. 

Only 2.6% of pupils at grammars have free school meals entitlement compared to 14.9% nationally. It is now a well-established fact that by age 11, poor children are lagging nearly a year behind their more affluent middle class peers. They are not only less likely to pass a grammar test at age 11, but it is also unlikely their parents would consider one. 

The roots of social mobility are established at a much younger age – an issue which our colleagues in the coalition government, the Liberal Democrats, recognised early on and which we pursued through policies like pupil premium and free primary school meals from 2010 – 2015.

If we are really to address social mobility, and ensure that the next generation can have the opportunity to make a success of our future we would do well to look again at two key “Cinderella” areas.

Firstly, nursery and early years provision – where the gaps in attainment between poor children and their peers are already clear at the age of four or five.

And secondly, one of the reasons for our longstanding issues with skills and productivity lies in the golden age of grammars. Whilst they flourished, children left behind in technical colleges and comprehensives languished. 

There is much more to be done in funding and expanding schools and providing more technical and vocational routes into the world of work, such as university technical colleges and the further education sector.

The structure of education is changing again. The education select committee is already looking at the evolution of multi-academy trusts and what makes a successful one. 

I am sure the committee will now want to consider the proposals in the government’s consultation and test the evidence on how it will improve social mobility and ensure the best outcomes for all our young people.

Neil Carmichael is Conservative MP for Stroud and chair of the education select committee