Well, that didn’t last long, did it? Responding to Theresa May on grammar schools.

Melissa Benn's picture


 Melissa Benn, Chair of Comprehensive Future, annotates Theresa May’s supposedly ‘One Nation’ speech on the steps of Downing Street on July 13th in the light of announcements that she looks likely to lift the ban on the creation of new grammar schools.


I have just been to Buckingham Palace, where Her Majesty The Queen has asked me to form a new government, and I accepted.

 In David Cameron, I follow in the footsteps of a great, modern Prime Minister. Under David’s leadership, the government stabilised the economy, reduced the budget deficit, and helped more people into work than ever before.


Perhaps the most significant aspect of Cameron’s ‘modernity’ as PM was his recognition that the traditional Tory support for grammars had to be ditched. Over the past decade, an influential section of the party studied the evidence on grammars and social mobility and came to the considered conclusion that selective education hindered the life chances of poorer children. In the words of David Willetts,  then Tory front-bench spokesman on education and employment, in his seminal speech on the issue, in 2007,‘ we must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids..’  and that ‘ there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it.’


But David’s true legacy is not about the economy but about social justice. From the introduction of same-sex marriage, to taking people on low wages out of income tax altogether; David Cameron has led a one-nation government, and it is in that spirit that I also plan to lead.


Cameron’s government recognised that it could never appear serious about ‘social justice’ as long as it continued to back selective education, which so clearly hinders the educational and later life chances of the majority of the working class and less well off. International data is clear: the earlier selection occurs, the greater the effect of socio-economic background on results.


Because not everybody knows this, but the full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party, and that word ‘unionist’ is very important to me.

 It means we believe in the Union: the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it means something else that is just as important; it means we believe in a union not just between the nations of the United Kingdom but between all of our citizens, every one of us, whoever we are and wherever we’re from.

That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others.

 If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.

 If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.


A grammar school system is supposedly designed to identify the academically talented from all social and ethnic backgrounds. The evidence is stark: it does not. Recent data from Buckinghamshire's Local, Equal and Excellent group shows that high ability children from poor backgrounds, and some ethnic groups, do disproportionately badly under the 11+, suggesting that the exam is as much a reflection of family advantage and cultural capital, as raw academic talent. 

 Meanwhile, in selective systems, such as those which operate in Buckinghamshire, Kent and parts of Lincolnshire, the vast majority of children from lower income homes are turned away from grammar schools and forced to attend a secondary modern (although generally the school is re-badged under another, less damaging,  title) where their prospects of achieving good GCSEs have been shown to be worse than if they had attended a comprehensive school. 


 If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.

If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man.

If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand.

If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.


All of those social and other difficulties will be hugely compounded if you attend a secondary modern.


But the mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone means more than fighting these injustices. If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.


The ability to buy in ‘intensive coaching’ has been shown to be one of the biggest determinants of success in passing the 11 + exam. Children living in the wealthier areas of Buckinghamshire are twice as likely to pass the 11+ as children living in poorer areas. Children at private schools are nearly three times more likely to pass than children from state schools. In these tough economic times, lower income families who are, in May’s words, ‘just managing’,  are highly unlikely to be able to afford the thousands of pounds involved  in procuring such extra tuition or paying for a primary education, even if they should want to. 


If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly.

 I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.


Nationally, grammar schools take a tiny percentage of children on free school meals.  Most children at these schools are from more affluent homes. They receive a selective and socially segregated education paid for by the taxes of the less well-off. 


We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. 


If the decision to build more grammar schools go ahead, thousands more children will face the ‘biggest call’ of their lives at the young age of ten or eleven. They will either fail to take, or take and fail,  the 11+. Under such a high stakes system, the children of the powerful are clearly the most likely to succeed and the children of the powerless the most likely to fail. This will have not just educational, but human consequences.

As Joanne Bartley, a parent who opposes the 11+ in Kent,  has said so eloquently, ‘ I think of the 11-plus division of people like this: for every one proud person believing they are cleverer than the rest, there are three people who are quiet, embarrassed, feeling stupid. Every time I hear someone say how fine grammar schools are, I think of the quiet people. Maybe you will consider them sometimes, too.’


 When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few.  We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you. 


Segregating children from different social backgrounds and ethnicities into different and unequally regarded schools restricts the opportunities and diminishes the confidence, often for life, of poorer children.

It priorities the wealthy - not you. It's as simple as that.


We are living through an important moment in our country’s history. Following the referendum, we face a time of great national change.

And I know because we’re Great Britain, that we will rise to the challenge. As we leave the European Union, we will forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.


Grammar schools were phased out from the 1960s onwards because thousands of parents, among them many Conservative voters, found it wholly unacceptable that their children should be judged failures before reaching puberty and sent to schools that were clearly considered second-class. 


That will be the mission of the government I lead, and together we will build a better Britain.


If Theresa May follows through on this policy and re-instates a previously failed, deeply divisive education system  her highly praised ‘one nation’ rhetoric on the steps of Downing Street will be revealed as a hollow sham.



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Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 07/08/2016 - 14:08

Well put Melissa

Nigel Ford's picture
Sun, 07/08/2016 - 14:21

As I said on another thread, the PM used to play up her comprehensive credentials by highlighting her education as a pupil of Wheatley Park comprehensive school, rather than Holton Park grammar, the school which was displaced by Wheatley Park while May was a pupil at the grammar.

So why the sudden enthusiasm for grammars, undermining the comprehensive case, when May tried to conceal her grammar background in favour of her comprehensive schooling?

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 07/08/2016 - 16:59

Nigel - could it be because the press and a few noisy Tory MPs are hyping up the possibility that May might announce the expansion of grammars at the next Tory conference?   It appears to me that they're trying to build up a head of steam (or hot air) which makes it appear there's more support for grammars than there actually is (hence my thread today about the misleading 'seven in ten' figure allegedly supporting a return of selection - the actual figure, in a poll which isn't publicly available - was 49%).

Fran's picture
Sun, 07/08/2016 - 17:05

It sad how the conservative party have become the party for the elderly.We live an a gobalised economy. An old discredited system where 80% failed cannot be they way forward. Bring back secondary moderns doesn't sound so attractive.Brevity showed we are a divided nation why make it worse

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 07/08/2016 - 17:17

Fran - the YouGov poll (2015) I cited on my thread re misleading stats in papers supporting selection found support for grammars declines steadily down the generations.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 09/08/2016 - 07:56

Thanks, Ben, your lead led me to the actual ComRes survey.   Looking at thisrather than the summary gives more insight.    This shows 54% would support new grammars anywhere in England but this drops to 49% when the new grammars would be local.   A 5% drop in support for grammars when they're local rather than somewhere else in England is odd, don't you think?

I see the National Grammar School Association is trumpeting the survey findings as 'overwhelming' support for grammars.  While 54% support nationally is more than half, it's hardly 'overwhelming' (and certainly not the 'seven in ten' reported in the Telegraph, Sun and Mail last Sunday).  As noted above, this falls to just below half supporting new local grammars.

Support for grammars is strongest in the 65+ age group.  68% would support new grammars nationally.  This fell to 44% in the 35-44 age group and rose to 53% among 18-24 year-olds.     But support among the youngest dropped from 53% to 41% when new grammars would be local.  Even among the oldies, support locally drops to 64%.    This suggests support for grammars iis strongest when they would be somewhere else in England and not on respondents' doorsteps.  Support for selection dwindles when it could have a personal consequence.

CORRECTIONS - The orignal comment has been amended to correct mangled grammar and typos.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 09/08/2016 - 08:44

Grammar schools, as well as faith schools and primary free schools may be 'exacerbating' segregation, research published in Schools Week reveals.  

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 09/08/2016 - 08:46

Tory head of Education Select Committee has joined opposition to May's alleged grammar plan, Schools Week reveals.

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 11/08/2016 - 18:15

Labour are on big losing streak. Let's face it it we will probably see some new grammars

agov's picture
Fri, 12/08/2016 - 07:46

Unless perhaps Conservatives consider, amongst other things, that their support for grammar schools was thought to have gone a long way towards costing them the 1964 election.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 12/08/2016 - 08:09

Ben - it doesn't follow that Labour's 'big losing streak' will inevitably mean new grammar schools.  It's not just Labour who oppose more selection.  The Tory chair of the Education Select Committee opposes it;  other Tory backbencheers would fight it.  One Tory MP said the move would be 'undemocratic' because' It wasn’t in the party manifesto, it therefore lacks political legitimacy and I doubt it would have the support of the parliamentary party'.

Secretsquiggle's picture
Fri, 12/08/2016 - 13:47

FFT's Education Datalab has investigated the effect grammar schools have on the comprehensive system's ability to be reflectively comprehensive: http://educationdatalab.org.uk/2016/08/grammar-schools-contaminate-compr...

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 12/08/2016 - 14:09

Thank you.  It's important to point out the fact that selection in one county can undermine the comprehensive system in a neighbouring county.   An example is Rutland where high ability children in Rutland whose nearest Rutland comprehensive would be Casterton Business and Entrerprise College go to Bourne Grammar in Lincolnshire.    Bourne Grammar also recruits from as far away as Peterborough, another LA neighbouring Lincolnshire.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 12/08/2016 - 13:55

FullFact investigated the evidence re grammars and social mobility.   It cited the Sutton Trust: Less than 3% of grammar schools entrants are entitled to free school meals (so much for giving a leg up to the disadvantaged);  and Professor Stephen Gorard: “There is repeated evidence that any appearance of advantage for those attending selective schools is outweighed by the disadvantage for those who do not'.  Professor Gorard's conclusion accords with research done in 2014 which was wrongly cited by the Mail as being in favour of selection because it said early selection may benefit a few but has a detrimental effect on the rest as it magnifies the effect of socio-economic background.


Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 13/08/2016 - 08:50

More or Less, Radio 4's programme which looks at topical statistics, discussed grammar schools.  The argument for grammars was that (a) they resulted in a rise in performance of the whole system because children were educated according to their ability, and (b) they helped social mobility.   Opponents of grammars disputed these points.  

Chris Cook looked at three areas which retained selection: Lincolnshire, Kent and Medway.   These were NOT areas of high performance and the gap between rich and poor in these areas was wider than in non-selective areas.   Both arguments for grammars, therefore, had been demolished by looking at the evidence.

The programme is available to listen again here - the discussion is the first item.

Alan's picture
Mon, 05/09/2016 - 10:27

To add..
-If you're a father you have less say in the education of your daughters, or sons, unless you are a councillor, vicar and/or teacher
- from a feminist perspective, growing up in poverty and being segregated at 11 is sexist because it limits girls' opportunities to be involved in politics and to have a voice more generally
- subsequent to the 1944/60s economic growth era, lack of imagination in policy now means poverty shapes the structure of education to remain selective to meet targets.
- secondary modern schools are on the frontline of segregation but heads do not support parents who want an end to the 11+
- social class divides opinion. There is too much focus on middle class children not passing the 11+ and no support for poorer children/campaigners
- orthodox faith groups would rather focus on any other social issue other than the 11+ despite knowing the psychosocial implications
- political focus on the expansion of grammar school does not tackle existing selection

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