The controversy about increasing admissions to Britain’s surviving grammar schools has re-opened old, half-forgotten, lines of political controversy. The result is that some issues, such as the negative impact of selective schools on others in their areas, attract considerable attention, while many do not. Among the latter are the questions of why, and when, selection in secondary education can be justified, and of the plausibility of the justification actually deployed by Theresa May’s government.
One defence of selective schooling is that a country’s pool of educated people is too small to sustain its future economy and state administration. Indeed, this was at the centre of the National Efficiency movement’s support for a major expansion in grammar schools (which began in 1907). The pool was then too small because many pupils in private schools were not well educated, and had little interest in training for careers where a high level of skill was required. This was a system in which personal connections were crucial to job recruitment, for the middle class as much as the working class, and many of the skills eventually needed were acquired during employment. National Efficiency advocates wanted to broaden access to secondary education to social classes beyond the more affluent middle class so as to fill this “skills” gap.
A century later nearly all private schools have to demonstrate to parents that their pupils obtain high academic credentials, because their children’s success in the labour market now depends on it. This massive transformation in the operation of private education since the mid-20th century has meant that, nationally, more than enough adolescents are educated to a sufficiently high standard to fill the most skilled jobs. Indeed, five years after they complete their degrees more than one third of current graduates are still not in jobs designated as requiring graduate entry. Thus, with the important exception of some specific sectors, there is no shortage of highly qualified entrants to the workforce. Moreover, while it is possible that these exceptions might conceivably be rectified by the creation of very specialized selective schools, increasing the overall number of grammar school places could not do so. The May justification for her policy is different therefore, being couched in terms of increasied social mobility. This is an implausible rationale that has attracted surprisingly little comment, despite its underpinning assumptions being largely spurious.
First, the scale of the proposed increase in grammar school places is so small that any impact on British social structure overall will be tiny. It is akin to claiming that economic inequality nationally can be reduced by the government establishing a lottery fund from which a few poorer people each month will be set up as millionaires.
Secondly, even if that expansion were much larger, disadvantaged primary school children would have to be the beneficiaries of positive discrimination in selection processes for most to compete successfully for places, given the family and school advantages many middle-class children would have had beforehand. While May wants schools to ensure that some places do go to the disadvantaged, the whole history of selection in those areas (notably Kent and Buckinghamshire) where comprehensivization was not introduced 40 years ago has been of a strong association with social class. Obviously what middle class voters in those areas do not want is for their grammar schools to be given over primarily to the children of the disadvantaged; their aim is to reduce stress for themselves and their children in relation to the 11+ examination, by having more places available to them. They will surely get their way, and the class bias in grammar school selections will largely continue.
Thirdly, there is a widely held, but false, myth that for any position, providing you devise the right sort of selection procedures, you can always determine an approximate rank order among candidates, thereby ensuring the “best” are selected. In fact, even with adults, with vast amounts of information about them available, and with extensive testing, selection is imperfect. While it is relatively easy to determine competence – who does, and who does not, have the skills to be proficient in a particular activity – rank-ordering the competent is subject to considerable inaccuracy in all cases. That is, assessments of relative potential for future performance are always, and necessarily, highly imprecise. That situation is far worse when information is limited and when it is children being ranked for rationed places (at grammar schools). Among those children who do demonstrate competence, it is luck that will primarily determine which of them gets admitted and which rejected.
Finally, like most politicians, May invokes social mobility as if it were always a desirable social goal. It is not. Obviously, few today would advocate a society in which social advancement was impossible, and most argue that mobility during the last century has been socially beneficial. However, the expansion of the middle class then was the result primarily of changes in the labour market, with proportionately fewer non-skilled jobs and more skilled ones. Some of those born into working class families thus became middle class. Relative social peace was possible because there was much less downward mobility than upward mobility. If this earlier shift in the labour market does not continue this century, and there is strong evidence that it will not, then any upward mobility will be associated with corresponding downward movement. Too much of the latter can be at least as politically destabilizing as too little of the former, as Poujadism in 1950s France demonstrated.
For a leader portraying herself and her party as agents for political stability, May’s invocation of social mobility as a core objective is somewhat ironic therefore. While some mobility is always valuable, too much would almost certainly not be promoted by anyone supposedly intent on preserving the polity’s stability during the present century. While St Augustine supposedly exclaimed “Make me good, God, but not yet”, May is surely committed to the view: “Give me social mobility, but not too much”.
You can read Alan Ware’s article ‘Grammar Schools, a Policy of Social Mobility and Selection – Why’ here.