“I got five A* grades, sweet”
Last week I looked at the mess that is modern British education, the mess that sees children from state schools emerging into the job market after 11 years unable to read or write. Even among university applicants, the cream of the educational crop, standards of literacy and numeracy have fallen dramatically.
Of course a disaster on this scale has effects and these are overwhelmingly felt by the less well off as they lack the financial resources to rescue their children from the Comprehensive system and get them into fee paying schools. To get the good jobs which would enable them to move up the economic ladder, the children of the less well off need education but they are not getting it. As such, they are stuck in the same level into which they were born. A report by the London School of Economics found that, of eight rich countries surveyed, Britain and the US had the lowest social mobility and that, whereas in the US social mobility had remained stable, in Britain it had actually declined.
If this social stratification is the effect of rotten state education what can be done about it? The most unconvincing but most often heard solution is to ‘spend more money’. Since 1994-1995 education spending has risen from 3.3% of GDP to 5.6% in 2005-2006. As we have seen, it looks as though much of this has been wasted.
What is needed is a radical change of the system itself. The LSE report claimed that the decrease is social mobility was “in part due to the strong and increasing relationship between family income and educational attainment”. With the Comprehensive system of doling out school places according to where you live this will always be the case. Another LSE report found that moving an average house from the catchment area of a bad primary school to the catchment area of a good one would increase its value by 34% and for secondary schools the rise is a still pretty steep 19%. Poor kids can’t get into good schools because they can’t afford to live near them. The LSE report warns that if you are less well off “you will not be able to afford the house that gets your kids access to the best state school”. We have selection in our schools and it selection based on wealth.
In an effort to restore the social mobility that we must have if we are going to consider ourselves a just society, it is worth looking at the system we had back when poor kids could get on and do well. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the grammar school. The way a grammar school worked was to offer bright children, whatever their economic background, a quality education. Their aptitude would be determined by sitting the 11+ exam with those that passed it going to grammar school and those that didn’t going to a Secondary Modern. Instead of selection by wealth, as we have now, we had selection by ability and the consequences, in terms of social mobility, are there to see.
There are many who argue against selection at all, this is the basis of the whole Comprehensive system, but selection is part of life. There is a very good reason that John Terry plays at centre back for England instead of me; he was selected because he is a better footballer. If there was no selection then every adult male would become a Premiership footballer. Many say that 11 is too young an age to select which child should go where, but is the age of 16 or 18 any less arbitrary? By that time bright children have been exposed to disruptive influences and been taught at a slower rate for another five years.
So how would grammar schools work today? Admissions policy would be altered so that entry to a school would be based not on which house your parents could afford but on how smart the child is. This would require the reintroduction of some sort of 11+ exam. The children who scored too low to get into the best school would go to the second best and so on. But would this mean that they were being thrown on the educational scrapheap? No, because if good schools have the opportunity to expand and take over other schools there would be an incentive on those lower down the pecking order to shape up. Investment in these schools would be evenly spread along the social spectrum because the raw material of infant intelligence itself is also evenly spread.
One common objection put forward to academic selection is that poor children will be doomed to fail against rich the children. The inference here is pretty clear and pretty condescending to the less well off, namely that poor kids are inherently thick which I don’t believe. It is also suggested that middle class homes are more conducive to learning than working class homes. Speaking from experience I can honestly say that very few middle class houses have bookshelves groaning under the weight of Proust, Shakespeare and Walt Whitman.
It is also claimed that middle class children have an unfair advantage because their parents are ‘pushy’. However, I know of no reason why less well off parents should be any less ‘pushy’. This is demonstrated by the impressive academic performance of ethnic minority pupils who often come from less well of families and areas.
In short, to give children from less privileged backgrounds the chance to improve their lot in life, to achieve real social justice, we need to move away from selection by parents income towards selection by innate ability. Only then will we be able to stop the class society congealing into the caste society.
NB When he was Education Secretary in Harold Wilson’s Labour government between 1965 and 1967, Anthony Crosland famously said “if there’s one thing I do, I will smash every fucking grammar school in the country”.
Crosland, the man who ended the grammar schools, had himself attended the prestigious Highgate School (termly fees between £3,430 and £4,035) and Trinity College, Oxford.