Each week we ask experts to come up with answers to the questions dominating the headlines.
Last week, the debate about selective education returned to the mainstream as Conservative Mayor of London—and prospective parliamentary candidate for Uxbridge—Boris Johnson used his LBC radio phone-in to state that scrapping grammar schools was “a real tragedy for this country.” His comments followed Home Secretary Theresa May’s support for the possibility of a new grammar school in her constituency. Debates about education—particularly when the topic relates to opportunities for the poorest children—always ignite passions, but public opinion on this issue proves tantalisingly difficult to gauge: a YouGov poll last year found that just 37 per cent of the public supported expanding grammar schools, but only 25 per cent opposed them entirely.
If grammar schools alone hold the key to social mobility, then something’s gone badly, badly wrong. Schools, regardless of their intake and the student population, should be geared up towards improving the life chances of every single young person who comes through the door at 11, and leaves five years later at 16. Every school should do everything within its power to ensure that every young person is well qualified when they leave. But what defines “qualifications?” For me, it isn’t merely a smattering of GCSE certificates and BTECs, but a strong whiff of the rich, vibrant and downright beautiful British national cologne, of which we, as a nation, should be rightly proud. To truly educate is to inspire. A truly comprehensive education system is the way to inspire social mobility; to help anyone achieve their very, very best. Matthew Burton, Teacher and star of Channel 4’s Educating Yorkshire
An escape route
The existing grammar schools provide a useful illustrative example of what our most able young people are capable of, and I would recommend spending some time working at one to any secondary teacher. They also provide one of the few dependable routes from state schooling to prestigious courses at top universities. What they do not do is contribute any great degree of social mobility. They are dominated by the already privileged and function as an escape route for the middle class. Social mobility requires greater opportunities for those at the average secondary school, not only those at elite institutions. Andrew Old, teacher and blogger
Questions of background
I’m not against grammar schools, but on this question of social mobility, the answer is probably not, at least in their current form. To take the example of London, first, the small number of grammar schools means that their impact is limited. But second, and more importantly, It is hard for grammar schools to seriously drive social mobility because middle-class parents—understandably—often pay for tutoring to prepare their children for the selection process. If grammar schools were to have a chance of improving social mobility, they would have to scrutinise the social background of applicants much more closely. David Lammy, Labour MP and prospective candidate for Mayor of London
The evidence suggests that grammar schools don’t improve social mobility—they merely give the appearance of it. The idea that inequality of life opportunities can be solved by having children learn in separate buildings has always struck me as odd. Why would different roofs help? Too often it seems that people want to save the “bright studious” kids from the “rabble crowd”—but what of the “middle-of-the-road studious kid”? Where’s their school specially designed for their needs? What we need to do, and which has been shown time and again to be eminently do-able, is make all schools good places to learn. End of. Laura McInerney, Deputy Editor of Academies Week and former teacher
Boost all schools
The evidence is that high-ability children do as well in all-ability schools as in grammar schools, provided the quality of teaching is high and there is a genuinely comprehensive intake. The challenge is to make all-ability schools fit for high-ability students, for example through large, academic sixth forms which have good progression routes on to top universities. It’s also vital to have excellent teachers, including teachers who are themselves of high academic ability, which is why programmes like Teach First are so important. Andrew Adonis, Labour peer and former Minister for Schools