It is their alleged power to enhance social mobility that seems to dominate the argument for more grammar schools in England, but what's the evidence? Toby Young, in a recent Spectator article finds little to show that such schools have ever created or helped much mobility, despite anecdotal evidence that this does happen in individual cases. I am one such case; my wife another; but not, of course, our children.
"At their peak in the 1950s and 60s, when around a quarter of Britain’s schoolchildren in state-funded secondary education were at grammars, the main beneficiaries were the sons and daughters of the middle class and lower-middle class. According to the 1959 Crowther Report, around 36 per cent of the sixth-form pupils at grammar schools were classified as members of the ‘professional and managerial’ class, 18 per cent as ‘clerical’, 36 per cent ‘skilled manual’, 7 per cent ‘semi-skilled manual’ and 3 per cent as ‘unskilled manual’. Moreover, those in the last two categories were unlikely to go to university. Another report (Gurney-Dixon, published in 1954) revealed that two-thirds of the children of semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers at grammars left without two A-levels."
And now? Young goes on:
"Today, grammar schools do even less to help the children of the least well-off. The Department for Education defines ‘disadvantaged pupils’ as those eligible for free school meals at some point in the last six years, a measure known as ‘FSM Ever 6’. In all of England’s state-funded secondary schools, 29 per cent of children are in this category; in England’s 163 remaining grammars, it’s less than 5 per cent. On average, grammar schools admit four times as many children from fee-paying prep schools as children on free school meals."
The last sentence seems to say it all about a failed policy.
What is odd, to me, is that there has been no mention of the C word – curriculum. It's as if new grammar schools will just be teaching the same stuff as other schools – and being better at it, I suppose, where, sadly, "better" equates with more GCSE Grades A* and A per capita. What nonsense. The whole point of the 1960s grammar school I went to was that it had a different curriculum from the other school in the town, a curriculum that opened up a route to high status knowledge and skills.
The point of the (often ineffective) Eleven Plus examination was to identify those who would (and would not) likely be able to benefit from such a curriculum. It was through such access to knowledge and skills that social mobility came for working class children like me, along with the alienation that was all too often the flip side of that Faustian bargain. A long article, and an editorial, in yesterday's Sunday Times also had no mention of curriculum.
Perhaps this is understandable. Just as comprehensive schools democratised school choice (up to a point), and the shift from GCE / CSE to GCSE democratised exams choice and entry (well, sort of), so the national curriculum democratised the curriculum making all that high-status knowledge and skills available to everyone (providing that ...). In this logic, there is no need to mention curriculum as it has been sorted out.
As I said, what nonsense; there's always a need to talk about curriculum. We're promised a white paper, so expect more on this. Meanwhile, you'll find a 2016 House of Commons Briefing Paper (No. 1398) here (thanks to Mike Fertig for this), and some historical stats, here.