Baroness Andrews: Grammar schools are a fatal distraction
Ahead of her debate in the House of Lords this Thursday, Labour Peer Baroness Andrews writes on the likely dire consequences of expanded school selection.
At a time when – globally and domestically – the country needs clear thinking, clever solutions, and humane policies, the Prime Minister, brilliantly, has decided that a return to grammar schools holds the solution. She has few friends in this conviction and it is a rare gift to have wound up her ex-Chancellor, ex- Secretary of States for Education, trade unions, teachers, most of the Tory-supporting press, parents, and the Labour Party in principled and professional opposition.
Mrs May says that this is what parents want; that grammar schools work for the poorest children who are presently excluded from the opportunities that only they can provide; that they accelerate social mobility; that they close the attainment gap between rich and poor children; that they can inspire all schools to achieve more.
Each of these fallacies can be picked apart by reference to history, experience, logic and evidence. Much of it has been done in recent weeks by authoritative bodies and educationalists (including of course the Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw). And most importantly by people who know from bitter experience the lifelong impact of being declared a failure at 11 years old – before they even had a chance to know what they were good at. Most parents, for example, when polled, may like the idea of grammar schools in theory, but do not want a return to selection. It is an understandable contradiction, given the myths that have accumulated.
All these false notions are bundled together by Mrs May in her discovery of the notion of ‘meritocracy’ (a.k.a: ‘the Great Meritocracy’). Unfortunately, she profoundly misunderstands the meaning of the term.
Grammar schools, as Michael Young (who invented the term and wrote the book) believed, were the enemies of a true meritocracy – which depended on the best opportunities and resources being available to all without discrimination. The evidence shows that working class children who got into grammars left earlier and with fewer ‘O’ levels.
Also, grammar schools were not responsible for accelerating social mobility. That was achieved by a fast changing economy and labour market in the 1950s and 1960s. But they did have a documented and devastating effect on their local schools and communities, breeding failure, resentment, and lack of ambition.
The fatuous title of the Green Paper, ‘Schools that Work for Everyone’ is certainly a sentiment that everyone can agree on. But grammars are designed, specifically, not to work for everyone.
The Baroness Andrews OBE is a Labour peer