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May 22, 2006

Comprehensives and Social Mobility

Crossland really shafted those who were both poor and clever:

Now, in a previous generation, or had we lived in a different LEA, my class would have gone en masse to a grammar school. When I think about this, I ask myself three questions. Would we have received a better education at a grammar? (The usual argument in favour of selection.) Would the rest of our school, the 70 per cent not in the top stream, have been worse off if we hadn’t been around? (The usual argument against selection.) And (I ask this only when feeling especially public-spirited) which option would have most benefited the country?

The answer to the first question, as everyone knows, is yes. Even many opponents of grammars accept they were better for bright children than comprehensives have proved to be. The elite ethos, the raised expectations, the decreased likelihood of some strutting psychopath assaulting you in the lavatories at dinnertime, grammars were conducive to the stretching of minds and the pursuit of excellence. Not surprising, this: they were designed to make pupils feel special; comprehensives weren’t.

The people I’ve met who went to grammars learnt in greater depth and breadth than I did. Their lessons were more rigorous and more challenging. Roy Jenkins? Denis Healey? Harold Wilson? I don’t think they were baking sheets of paper in the oven to make them look like medieval parchment for history homework in the Thirties, as I was 40-odd years on.

If we would have benefited from being elsewhere, would the rest of the school have suffered? I can’t see how. The top stream had no academic, and precious little social, contact with the other streams. The mechanism by which our presence was supposed to raise the overall standard did not exist. If anything, having the top stream monopolise not only the academic life of the school, but also its sporting, musical and dramatic efforts, must have been demoralising. If we hadn’t been there, those otherwise in the middle of the ability range would have been at its top.

By a roundabout route, after A-level retakes elsewhere, I got to Oxford. I sized up the other undergraduates, the majority of them from fee-paying or selective state schools, and I knew that the ten or twelve cleverest kids in my class at school would have had nothing to fear from them in terms of pure intellect. Nothing. But most of my classmates hadn’t even applied. Those that had, hadn’t made it. But it wasn’t prejudice that kept them out. It was that the other candidates, the ones from selective schools, were better prepared, better coached, better educated. Gordon Brown, take note. It wasn’t that Laura Spence’s rivals were cleverer than she was. It was that they almost certainly knew more and could express it better.

An interesting example of how ideology can cripple a system that works well.

May 22, 2006 in Academia | Permalink


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This is more wishful thinking. There's no evidence in this except for his anecdotes. The proportion of low-income family children at grammar schools is relatively worse compared to its area than comprehensive schools, so they certainly -- whatever else they might offer - do not help those who are poor or clever.

Posted by: Matthew | May 22, 2006 9:02:51 AM

Social mobility is never going to be about "getting into Oxford", simply because of the quite obvious fact that the top ten universities can't take more than a barely material proportion of the working class even under the best admissions policy possible.

What would be more relevant would be if someone wrote an article musing on their time at a middle-ranking British University - somewhere like Keele or Southampton - and ask the question "how many of my classmates would have gone to this university, rather than a factory job or the dole, if we still had Secondary Moderns?"

Tim adds: Not convinced that is relevant either. When 50% go to University, as opposed to the 12/15% of a generation ago, how can you equate the effect on social mobility of a degree?

Posted by: dsquared | May 22, 2006 9:24:28 AM

There are plenty of statistics to support the thesis that comps have killed social mobility. Tim didn't cite them, but they are out there - go look.

My wife and I went to a bog standard comp; she taught in several, our conclusion was that we would not have children unless we could afford to educate them privately. Fortunately, we could. It was a prime motivation for my career and has cost more than all our housing and holidays.

The people who suffer from the British phobia about selection are the bright kids in poor areas who are held down by peer pressure, low parent expectations and the PC nonsense which wastes most of the school day. No nation can squander so much talent and prosper.

An important component of social mobility, by the way, IS the ability for the very talented to move straight to the top - perhaps via Oxbridge. Margaret Thatcher's cabinet - courtesy of the grammar schools at which most of them were educated - had more products of working-class families than any Labour cabinet before or since. The cynical might think that Labour needs bright working-class people to be prevented from social advancement so as to be the Party's embittered backbone.

The American Dream that someone born in a trailer park can become President, or Napoleon's idea of the Field-Marshal's baton in the backpack of every soldier, is very motivating and very unifying. Too much of Britain's talent is psychologically disabled by excuses.

Posted by: Tom Paine | May 22, 2006 9:42:38 AM

"Margaret Thatcher's cabinet - courtesy of the grammar schools at which most of them were educated - had more products of working-class families than any Labour cabinet before or since. "

This is plain wrong. In Mrs Thatcher's first Cabinet there were 22 ministers, of which 19 had been to public schools. Tony Blair's, at least before the reshuffle, was just 9/23.

Posted by: Matthew | May 22, 2006 10:11:57 AM

[ When 50% go to University, as opposed to the 12/15% of a generation ago]

You say this as if it was just some strange thing that had happened like global warming, rather than the consequence of a policy of abandoning selection in education.

Posted by: dsquared | May 22, 2006 10:18:45 AM

And what about the kids who failed the 11-plus? It was not a glorious system that many like to think it was.

The supporters of the old grammar schools often don't see things from that perspective. They don't see that the state, whilst giving the children who passed, an excellent education, left those who failed on the scrap heap.

I'm personally in favour of a more voucher-based system which would give parents more choice, particularly around schools to suit their children's needs.

Posted by: Tim Almond | May 22, 2006 11:15:50 AM

Matthew made the excellent point a while ago that all of these articles ought to be made to say "bring back the Secondary Moderns", "Labour should never have got rid of the Secondary Moderns" etc, as it is silly to name the entire system after schools that only took about 15% max of the pupils.

Posted by: dsquared | May 22, 2006 11:47:28 AM

Agreed that the secondary modern/grammar school failed to provide a satisfactory education for the majority of kids, but can we honestly say that today's system does better? Poor performance is a corollary of large-scale state interference, whatever the sector.

The arguments about overall changes in social mobility and attainment brought about by the (near) abolition of the grammars are intractable, at least in this format. But one thing is for certain - the grammar schools enabled the brightest few to rise from working class backgrounds to the highest echelons of British society. Comparable escape routes in today's Britain are notable by their absence.

NB - In 1986, Thatcher faced Kinnock over the dispatch box. Both were the beneficiaries of a grammar school education, both were from working class, or at least lower middle class backgrounds. In 2006, it's Fettes v. Eton, son of a university lecturer v. son of a stockbroker. Is this what Crosland and co. would have considered progress?

Posted by: Jon | May 22, 2006 4:38:24 PM

[In 2006, it's Fettes v. Eton]

yeh, but this is small-sample stuff; if a few votes had gone the other way it could have been Kirkaldy High School vs Tooting Bec Grammar (Brown v Davis).

Posted by: dsquared | May 22, 2006 5:27:52 PM

The Kolkhoz of State Education - the Comprehensive - and with it came the nationalisation of schools as Crosland and Shirley Williams and Fred Mulley pressured and squeezed local authorities into conforming.

Now we get Comprehensive Universities.............

It is an ideological experiment and has produced a harmonious, successful, society which is a world leader ?

Wait for the coming decades when China and India really unleash their engineering potential. Britain is on the slide just as Spain slid from being one of the very richest nations in Europe.

If you cannot create a good supply of Physicists and Chemists and Engineers you cannot make goods to export - and it is the independent schools that produce most of these, and most Olympic athletes according to Trevor Brooking

Posted by: Rick | May 22, 2006 6:07:51 PM

True that we have a huge deficit on mercandise trade but Britain is the second largest exporter of services after America by value and we have a trade surplus in services - albeit insufficiently large to pay for the deficit on merchandise trade.

The important coming question is how well will business in Britain will be able to withstand competition in global markets when universities in China and India are turning out increasingly well qualified technical graduates in hundreds of thousands a year and Britain is "20th out of 24 OECD countries for staying-on rates [in education] at 17"

Posted by: Bob B | May 22, 2006 9:25:14 PM

Grammar schools, eh? No good for the poor and clever? I wouldn't say that, and neither would anyone else I know from school who was poor and clever.

As to the numbers from low-income backgrounds, that's a simple selection effect: children whose parents do not value education will not put them forward for the grammar schools. The best thing to deal with the problem is to ensure that all grammar schools in a given county make sure that every primary school has the forms necessary, and then teachers can help pupils who look like they have a good chance to fill them out. There are plenty of children that this won't help, but it would make things better.

Posted by: Marcin Tustin | May 26, 2006 11:10:23 AM