Poor kids

What if bog-standard education for all turned out to be more elitist than the 11-plus?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

A thought for those who welcome the abolition of Britain’s grammar school system and would close down the few remaining such schools if they could:

What if academic selection was fundamentally less elitist than the current regime of bog-standard comprehensives with personalised learning plans?

It’s just a thought. Or it was, before a new study seemed to show precisely this point.

The study, carried out by researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE) and widely reported in Monday’s newspapers, compares social mobility in Britain with the situation in seven other wealthy countries. It found that British children from poorer families have less chance of improving their lives than those in every country apart from the USA. Unlike any other country, social mobility in Britain has worsened over time – which, apparently, is partly a consequence of the demise of the grammar school system.

So kids who are born poor in Britain get a lousy education and stay poor for life. This grim conclusion will come as little surprise to anybody with a basic understanding of real life in Britain 2005. It should, however, come as something of a shock to those in the upper echelons of policymaking, who continue to peddle the fantasy that everybody gets equal educational chances these days, and if all kids just had more schooling, social inequalities would magically disappear. So three-years olds are pressured into pre-school, 18-year-olds are pushed into university, and the Labour Party manifesto promises ‘No more dropping out at 16′. When will they ever learn?

Education is not a panacea for social problems. It never has been, and it never will be. A decent education, within a hierarchy that rewards academic merit, can help a few individuals progress beyond the circumstances of their birth – enabling, in theory at least, the son of a dustman to become a lawyer, the daughter of a dinner lady to become a doctor. The problem that this study seems to show is that in Britain today, we don’t even have that.

The intellectual hierarchy embedded in the grammar school system has been flattened out and levelled down to provide every child with an equally mediocre education. Those who do well in this situation are not the children who are poor but bright, but the children who simply happen to be born middle-class, living in areas with better-resourced schools that are attractive to better teachers and with access to private tuitition or private schooling, and greater ability and expectation to go on to higher education. As one news report described the LSE’s findings: ‘Educational opportunities improved for those born in the early 1980s but social inequalities widened because children from wealthier families benefited overwhelmingly from the increase in places at university’ (1).

How did it all go so badly wrong? Whilst international comparisons of social mobility are useful, the issue is not that Britain fares badly compared to other wealthy nations. The fact that four of the eight countries studied by the LSE were Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, much less populous and diverse societies than the UK, with a very different relationship to the state, indicates the limitations of such comparisons.

And it is important not to romanticise a ‘golden age’ of grammar schooling. Many of those who pushed for comprehensive education in the 1960s were motivated by well-founded concerns about the way that academic selection reproduced and ossified social inequalities. Grammar schools selected a small academic elite, comprising children who passed the 11-plus examination. This provided the scope for some working-class kids to ‘make good’ in education – but it was generally the case that those who came from wealthier backgrounds were most likely to achieve educationally, whilst those from the poorest backgrounds were most likely to end up taking the second-best secondary modern route into manual work.

Today’s stubborn campaign to abolish Britain’s few remaining grammar schools seems to be motivated by little more a base desire to bring all schools down to the level of the bog-standard comprehensive. The argument seems to boil down to: ‘If our kids can’t have a good education, why should anybody else’s?’ But half a century ago, when grammar schools were not simply the odd quirky institutions but part of the established education system, the arguments against the grammar system often involved a genuine, if idealistic, belief that all children could enjoy the quality education that had previously been offered only to a few, giving all children, irrespective of background, a shot at academic and social advancement.

That this never happened was not because of the abolition of the grammar system, or the failings of the concept of comprehensive schools. It was because of the UK’s increasingly instrumental approach to education.

In today’s society, increasingly devoid of either political vision or economic dynamism, education is promoted as the way to solve all manner of social ills and realise all kinds of individual ambitions. Under the weight of all these expectations, it fails to fulfil any of them; and in the process, education is screwed up as well. So we end up with the worst of all possible worlds.

Schools become sites of socialisation and life skills, with pupils put through a battery of courses on sex, drugs, citizenship and ‘circle time’. For every overblown social ‘problem’, from teenage pregnancy to childhood obesity to the pensions crisis, there is a policy-solution that revolves around the schools. Train up the dinner ladies! Teach saving and budgeting schools! Install nurses with unlimited supplies of emergency contraception! Enforce more physical education! End bullying, child abuse and domestic violence!

As the importance of knowledge – education – moves further and further down the list of a school’s priorities, the more we hear tales of woe about university undergraduates who cannot structure an essay or new recruits to the job market who can barely spell their own name.You wouldn’t now expect any school-leaver to be able to recite a poem or conjugate French verbs, though they are frighteningly well-versed in the language of self-esteem.

Education is also, paradoxically, promoted as the key vehicle for social mobility. If kids start ‘pre-school’ at aged three, we are told, they might become middle-class in outlook by aged five. The more qualifications that children ratchet up whilst at secondary school, taking their pick from a bewildering array, the more likely they will be to go on to university – and everybody knows that a degree is how you increase your earnings, so that’s social mobility, isn’t it?

The actual consequence of persistent grade inflation and accreditation mania is conveniently ignored. When all have top grades, those who choose university are those who can afford to spend three years frittering away their pocket money and immediate future; those whom universities choose are the candidates who have interesting travelling experiences, middle-class hobbies and intantigible qualities like ‘confidence’, because who’s to tell if they are brighter or dimmer than anyone else in the A-grade pile?; secretaries have degrees in business studies, are called executives and are paid like secretaries. The degree-as-social-mobility line is a con, and no doubt many of the refuseniks from poor backgrounds are smart enough to know this.

The crusade against academic elitism has made the education system into a naked reflection of a more basic social elitism, where ‘What’s your name and where d’you come from?’ ends up counting for more than intellectual application, and good fortune is more a driver of social mobility than exam results. The idea that education can move people forward in leaps and bounds has been usurped by the prosaic notion of ‘value added’ – that if children leave school slightly more literate and numerate than when they started, that’s good enough. But it isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. Real education has its own value; today’s brand of vapid instrumentalism isn’t worth the interactive whiteboard it’s written on.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Election 2005

(1) ‘Demise of grammar schools keaves poor facing uphill struggle’, The Times (London), 25 April 2005

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Topics Politics


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