‘Corbyn launches anti-grammar schools campaign’, says the headline on schoolsweek.co.uk, back in September. ‘The newly re-elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will launch a national campaign against plans to open new grammar schools in England’, says the subheading. To any proponent of social equality, the Labour Party’s opposition to Theresa May’s grammar schools policy at first sounds like a triumph of modern thought. But when one thinks about what it really means, it quickly becomes even more divisive than that of the Conservatives, and a lot worse of an option.
Corbyn’s dogma, and indeed that of the Labour Party for a long time before him, is to oppose the opening of new grammar schools on the basis of fairness to those who would go to a supposedly second-class secondary modern instead. Everyone should receive an equal standard of education they say, and grammar schools prevent this. However, 19,000 pupils already attend a secondary modern in the areas of the country where the grammar/secondary modern divide still exists. If the Labour Party had a genuine interest in providing equal education for all, why does it not actively pursue a policy to shut down these schools and attempt to establish a comprehensive system across the UK? It is seemingly only when they are raised by the Conservatives that Labour speaks out about them at all; for the rest of the time the Party remains glaringly silent.
Currently 32 grammar schools exist across Kent alone. There are none in the whole of the North East.
When the majority of grammar schools were shut down in the 1970s, why did Labour not see it through to the end and shut down them all? Or, failing that, attempt to shut them down now? It has no ambitions to, meaning the current situation is worst for everyone. If May’s policy was enacted, it may or may not decrease social mobility, but at least every child would have the option of going to a grammar school. Of course various social factors such as class, home environment, and parental income spent on tutoring will affect whether this is an equal chance for everyone, but every child would have the same options. Likewise, everyone would have the same options if only comprehensives existed. But currently a child living in Tunbridge Wells has multiple grammar schools to choose from if they so desire, and a child living in Oldham couldn’t go to one even if they wanted to. The North/South divide has never been so apparent as in the placement of the country’s remaining 163 grammar schools and the different opportunities children receive in them. Currently 32 grammar schools exist across Kent alone. There are none in the whole of the North East. If grammar schools are, all things considered, a positive opportunity for young people, let’s have them everywhere. If grammar schools ultimately fail those children who don’t get in, then let’s abolish them.
Not only is this placing of grammar schools fundamentally unfair, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the areas where they remain are typically rich and Conservative. Apparently in the 1970s if a Tory MP dragged their feet long enough in closing the grammars in their constituency then they were forgot about and remained open. So now exists a situation whereby the children who already start off in a higher social class and with greater wealth than those of the industrial North, have it so they get the best teaching, environment and opportunities to climb up the social ladder even further. This is exemplified by the typical price of housing in the South East, in particular when local to a grammar school, compared to that of the North of England. In the case of the former, the average price as of June 2016 was £265,638; the latter, £123,914. Parents who can afford to pay upwards of £250,000 for a house are also the ones who can afford tutoring to get their kids past the 11-plus, the expensive school uniforms, the ski trips to the Alps. Rich parents move to the areas with grammar schools to give their children the best education they can, amplifying the problem. If they existed across the country in equal measure, whether enough for every child or none at all, it would at least stop the extreme form of being able to buy the system. Some comprehensives will be better than other comprehensives, some grammars better than others, and parents would still move for them, but no school is as far ahead of its counterparts of the same type as a grammar school is ahead of a comprehensive. The fact we have an education system that includes both is absurd.
If they existed across the country in equal measure, whether enough for every child or none at all, it would at least stop the extreme form of being able to buy the system.
If the Conservatives want to pursue a policy of reinstating grammar schools, that’s their prerogative. But the Labour policy is currently just a reactionary one that only ever rears its head when brought up by someone else. It turns the party into one only playing at equality, making a show of how much they care for social mobility without any action to back up their words, and it seems they oppose the policy for the sake of opposition without providing a better alternative. Whether we abolish grammars or create new ones is an argument for another article, but anything would be better than this current grossly uneven playing field faced by children today. May wants equality of opportunity, Corbyn wants equality of outcome. Currently we have neither.