The public are still divided on the merits of selection-based educationby Peter Kellner / February 27, 2015 / Leave a comment
Political victories are seldom final. Christopher Price, who died a few days ago, was one of the finest champions of comprehensive schools. Whether as classroom teacher, Member of Parliament, campaigning journalist or polytechnic director, he fought against privilege and division in our education system. His cause, which seemed for some years to have triumphed, now faces a backlash, not least from the advocates of grammar schools. Kent is the latest county to wrestle with demands for their revival.
What does the public think? At YouGov we recently conducted an experiment to find out. On successive days we asked about it in two different ways—both perfectly legitimate—and got strikingly different answers.
First we asked: “Would you support or oppose re-introducing grammar schools across the whole of Great Britain?’” The result was emphatic. Just over half the public, 53 per cent, support the idea while only 20 per cent oppose it. (The remaining 27 per cent don’t know.) Though the margins vary—Conservatives and Ukip supporters back grammar schools far more emphatically than Labour or Lib Dem voters—supporters out number opponents in every political and demographic group.
The following day we asked a different question: “Would you support or oppose re-introducing the selective education system across the whole of Great Britain, where children take an exam at 11, with the top quarter of children going to grammar schools and the other three-quarters going to secondary modern schools?”
This time the result was much closer, with 46 per cent supporting the policy and 34 per cent opposing it. And this time, opponents outnumbered supporters among Labour voters (by 49-34 per cent), Scots (also by 49-34 per cent) and, just, Lib Dems (by 42-40 per cent).
Perhaps the most significant group are 25-39 year-olds—the generation with children either in secondary schools or heading there in years to come. They back “reintroducing grammar schools” by 45-17 per cent—but oppose “reintroducing the selective system” and the 11-plus exam by 41-35 per cent. This represents a 34-point shift, from a 28-point majority in favour of grammar schools to a six-point majority opposed to the 11-plus. This shift is greater than in any other group—political, regional or demographic—in our two surveys.
These figures prompt two thoughts. The first is that the debate about grammar schools is wide open. Many people react differently depending on whether the issue is posed in terms of educational quality or social division. Many of us want the best possible schools, but hate the idea of children being sorted into sheep and goats.
Secondly, on this issue as on many others, poll results need to be read with care. It’s not that one of our questions was “good” and the other “bad”: both were technically valid. But they framed the choice differently, and framing can have a big effect on the results we obtain.