Grammar schools segregate children by social class
In 1960 when I passed the 11 plus one of the middle class girls in my class said ‘there must be a mistake, Diane can’t have passed’. She was being perfectly logical, Grammar schools were for the middle classes not kids from the local council estate. Despite her misgivings I did go to grammar school, was put in the top stream, and, apart from when I went home, barely saw another working class child throughout my secondary school career. Professor Mary Evans in her autobiography ‘A Good School: Life in a Girls’ Grammar School’ reflects that ‘one or two working class pupils did enter this select, and selected, world. Yet how they were expected to survive it, and not commit suicide in the playground, is the question’. My recollection is of an alien, and at times incomprehensible world, where there was no evidence of my own working class culture and values, let alone any positive regard for them. I opted for invisibility and silence, and although I worked very hard, never found a voice to express what I knew or felt.
Fifty five years later grammar schools are even more of a middle class preserve. When I was at grammar school a quarter of children attending were from the “unskilled working-class”(Robbins 1963). However, the vast majority of them ended up in the bottom streams, so it is unsurprising that a third left without a single O level (Elliott State Schools since the 1950s). Today less than 3% of children who, like I was, are on free school meals attend, compared to 18% in non-selective state schools (Cribb et al 2013). Over four times as many children are admitted to grammar schools from the private school sector than children on free school meals.
Yet, why would we expect anything different when the whole rationale for the existence of grammar schools is class segregation. The epitome of class segregation within education is the divide between the state and private sectors. But grammar schools enable the middle classes to segregate themselves off from the working classes whilst remaining within the state sector. They are a vehicle of class privilege which is why the claim that they promote social mobility and enhance working class educational success has always been a myth. Rather over the past 60 years they have taken working class high achievers and in the vast majority of cases turned them into educational failures. In the 1950s 0.3% of grammar school pupils with 2 A levels were from the skilled working class (Robbins 1963). Today so few are admitted it is laughable to talk about grammar schools as a means of enhancing working class educational achievement. But as the statistics from the 1950s demonstrate, increasing the percentage is no solution if the vast majority end up in the bottom streams and sets.
However, it is the unjust impact grammar schools have on the rest of the state sector that is particularly pernicious. As long as grammar schools operate as middle class educational havens we will end up with demonised working class schools, secondary moderns in the past, ‘bog standard comprehensives’ in the present (Reay 2004). Both are starved of social diversity because of the social divisiveness grammar schools, along with the private schools, represent and encourage. This divisiveness has resulted in a much higher class attainment gap than is the norm in other European countries. Social class intake accounts for over 77% of the attainment gap between English schools (OECD 2010). But this appalling figure (the OECD average is 55%) is even higher in England’s selective counties. Kent, Lincolnshire and Buckinghamshire are all ranked in the 20 English places with the biggest attainment gap. If we are serious about achieving a fairer educational system all the evidence indicates that abolishing grammar schools is a good place to start.