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Social justice
24 May 2012

Can we be grown-up about grammar schools?

A defence of grammar schools from, say, Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail would surprise no one, but when it comes from Mary Ann Sieghart in the Independent feathers are ruffled.

Referencing the ongoing debate about social mobility, Sieghart reminds us that education really can make a difference:

  • “...pupils who had free school meals and went to Russell Group universities have exactly the same chance of landing a good professional or managerial job afterwards as students from a more privileged background. In other words, top-class higher education dissolves class differences.”

Because grammar schools are better than comprehensives at getting state school pupils into these top universities, Sieghart makes the following claim:

  • “...if you are bright but poor and you live in Kent, Essex, Buckinghamshire or Northern Ireland, your parentage doesn't have to dictate your progress. You have nearly the same chance of becoming a cabinet minister, a judge, a newspaper editor or a top rower as your privately educated neighbour. Why is that? Because these areas still have grammar schools, those turbo-chargers of social mobility.”

But, wait, Chris Cook of the Financial Times has some rather inconvenient data:

  • What we are showing here... is that, on average, poor children do markedly worse in Kent than in the rest of the country. Kent is less socially mobile than the rest of England – and much less mobile than London.”

But does this really mean that Sieghart’s argument is “straightforwardly untrue”?

Some questions:

Firstly, there are obvious cultural differences between lower income families in multi-ethnic London and the predominantly white working class of Kent – what impact do these have on educational outcomes? Secondly, does the pattern of educational inequality in Kent hold true in other grammar school areas like Buckinghamshire and Northern Ireland? Thirdly, is this a problem of secondary school education or one of early years and primary school education (sufficient to ensure that bright children from poor households don’t get into grammar schools)? Fourthly, what happens to disadvantaged children who do get into grammar schools?

Finally, can we have a grown-up conservation about all of this – one based not on leftwing or rightwing political correctness, but those little things called facts? Because this much is certain: if conservatives fail to engage at this level, then the grown-up conservation and the decisions that flow from it will be dominated by others.


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