Theresa May’s controversial decision to lift the ban on the opening of new grammar schools has been buoyed up by claims that selective school systems aid social mobility. In a country where privately educated young people consistently obtain a disproportionately high number of places at top universities compared to the state-educated majority, it is clear that social mobility needs improvement and grammar schools are being offered to us as a solution. Whilst this “solution” may initially appear simple and appealing, in reality it is difficult to find evidence that supports the new Prime Minister’s claims. In reality, reintroducing a system which values children on their academic achievements at the age of 11 seems somewhat regressive. It would surely be more sensible and beneficial for the government to invest in the development of the teaching and resources that are available to pre-existing but often underfunded state comprehensives.
The term “social mobility” seems to form the majority of many arguments made in favour of grammar schools, despite the fact that a minimal number of children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are actually likely to benefit from selective schooling. Currently, the disappointing reality is that only 3% of children who attend grammar schools are from disadvantaged backgrounds, compared with 19% of children in other types of state schools. One of the main reasons for this is the fact that wealthy, middle-class parents are likely to pay for their children to have private tuition in an attempt to ensure they pass the 11-plus. In fact, 13% of entrants to the 163 grammar schools that currently exist in Britain have previously been privately educated. These statistics suggest that grammar schools are more likely to benefit the wealthy and privileged than the poor and socially disadvantaged. If attending a grammar school is a measure of academic success, a selective system therefore makes it less likely that disadvantaged children will succeed.
Categorising children in this manner is more likely to harm the often disadvantaged low achievers than help high achievers, who are able and likely to succeed whether they attend a grammar school or not.
What is most troubling is the potential impact on these children who fail the 11-plus. Telling children that they are not destined for academic success at the age of 10 or 11 is likely to have a damaging effect, as children are divided into two clearly defined social groups at such a young age. According to Theresa May, children wishing to attend new grammar schools would be able to re-sit this entrance exam until the age of 16. Although this reform may appear to increase children’s opportunities, it is also important to consider how discouraging multiple resits could be for pupils repeatedly sitting and failing entrance exams. Comprehensive schools would thus become places from which pupils would feel the need to escape in attempts to reclaim their academic aspirations. The UK’s education system already places such a disproportionate amount of emphasis on academic attainment, exam grades and statistics. Introducing a potentially life-altering exam for 10 and 11 year-olds, which they may then retake and fail for the following five years, can only have a poisonous impact on children’s wellbeing, self-confidence and will to learn.
Categorising children in this manner is more likely to harm the often disadvantaged low achievers than help high achievers, who are able and likely to succeed whether they attend a grammar school or not. Researchers have found that high-achieving pupils performed just as well in the top 25% of comprehensive schools as they did in grammar schools. The harmful impact that selective schooling can have on low-achievers is therefore unnecessary when the government could simply work towards the development and enhancement of the remaining 75% of non-grammar schools. The comprehensive system can and does work as pupils are offered the opportunity to choose to study subjects that are more academic or vocational, based on their abilities but also on their own passions and aspirations. All young people deserve an education that inspires and empowers them, no matter their background or academic abilities. With the investment of time and resources, the comprehensive system could offer this, whilst selective schooling is only likely to leave many children disillusioned in order to offer social mobility to the lucky few.