Zombie Grammars

The resurrection of selective education rests on two shaky principles – that we can test students intelligence without in fact just testing for their class background, and that a student’s academic attainment should determine what curriculum they have access to.

The Grammar School debate has emerged from its grave. No one outside of rural Conservative Associations and the pages of the Daily Mail seemed to be suggesting that we should bring them back, yet here we are, about to witness a new wave of selective schools breaking on our shores.

This is genuinely surprising because they have almost no support in the educational profession. There isn’t a debate. The debate was won by comprehensives years ago and most of us have been getting on with teaching in mixed ability schools since then.

There are many good reasons for the lack of professional support for Grammar schools. Chief among these, which is rightly being plastered across newspaper columns at the moment, is the fact that there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that selective education limits social mobility and none at all to suggest that it supports it, contrary to Justine Greening’s newfound conviction.

Greening herself, beautifully summing up the post-ideological ideology of our day, said expanding grammar schools wasn’t about ideology, but simply about what worked. But we know that grammars don’t work. Regardless of the politics, they fail by Greening’s own measure.

But the politics of educational selection stinks just as badly as the practicality. While the data on social mobility is headline news, there has been far less discussion about the ideas that lie behind reintroducing selection. This is worrying, because the desire to reintroduce selection rests on two quite shaky premises.

The first of these concerns our ideas about academic ability and how you test for it. In Kent part of the 11+ test which is used to select for the county’s grammar schools is made up of verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests. The theory is that this is an objective test of a child’s intelligence, of their ability to think. They are supposed to be based in the realm of pure abstract thought. They test, supposedly, children’s pure intellect, and those who are best at reasoning get siphoned off to the local grammar.

Except that these tests obviously do refer to objects in the real world. The idea that you can work out how good a child is at verbal reasoning without any reference to their grasp of a particular language is obviously flawed. Often, what is tested is in fact whether or not children know the meaning of certain words. Verbal reasoning tests are essentially vocabulary tests. If you have a bigger vocabulary you do better in verbal reasoning tests, because you have a better grasp of the language. You can better use it to reason with.

This is a major reason why grammar schools are overwhelmingly full of middle class students and why they admit so few children on free school meals. If you are brought up in a wealthy family, moreover if your parents are middle class, then you will learn more words of the sort that crop up on these tests as a matter of course. This is because of access to resources, because of parental education, and numerous other reasons that link wealth to educational attainment. But more importantly, perhaps, is that the words that appear on these tests are the sorts of words used by middle class people at home, words taken from academic disciplines. They don’t include local dialect words, the sorts of words that you only hear in various different working class communities rather than at dinner parties. Children who grow up learning and using these less middle class words that don’t appear on the test are at an obvious disadvantage.

Greening has said that any new selective schools will most likely have to admit a certain number of students from deprived backgrounds, but they’ll have to do this by ignoring the principle of selection. These children will not make it into these schools by passing tests which presume to differentiate students based on their intellectual ability because these tests explicitly test for class. The tests can’t tell you how much students will know in future years, how much their vocabulary will develop throughout their school career, how capable they might be at a subject they are yet to be introduced to. What they reliably tell you is how middle class a child’s parents are, a fact implicitly admitted in Greening’s suggestion of forcing a selective school to admit more deprived children.

The second of the shaky foundations propping up May and Greening’s desire to open new grammar schools concerns the purpose that people see for the education system.

As Paul Mason recently pointed out, grammar schools were set up in the wake of the second world war to train the sorts of white collar workers that the new Fordist economy needed. This was an economy that was to be owned and run by the privately educated, laboured in by blue collar workers receiving a rudimentary, often technical education in Secondary Moderns, and managed by a new technocratic class. Grammar schools were designed to produce this new class of technocrats, made up of bright working class kids who were to be trained to keep the rest of the workforce in line in their carefully managed new factories and in their system-built new housing estates.

This is a limited, economically determined view of education, as training to produce the sorts of workers that the economy needs. Limited, and also outdated, irrelevant to the world we now live in.

Instead of providing a good education only to a small number of people who need it to carry out a certain stratum of jobs, and denying that education to those who don’t need it to carry out the manual labour for which capitalism has earmarked them, the comprehensive system strives to provide an excellent education to all students. A non-selective system sees education as an entitlement for all students, one which equips them to become independent citizens in their own right, able to fulfil themselves and fully engage in the life of society. It is the necessary training for civic life.

This entitlement and requirement is clearly something that all students need. The best way of ensuring that all students receive it is to ensure that they all attend the same school, where they are taught the same curriculum, regardless of their background or their academic attainment. Indeed, the whole point of removing the highest attaining students from the rest of their peers presumably rests on the idea that they should be studying something different. In a comprehensive school some students will excel more in some subjects than others. Some won’t get great marks in many subjects at all. But the entire curriculum is valuable, and considered by society to be a necessary subject of study for students to become citizens, and should therefore be taught to all students.

If the curriculum is considered good enough for the brightest students who get creamed off into grammar schools in some counties then frankly it’s good enough for all students. Some students might struggle to access this curriculum, but the challenge of teaching is to ensure that as many students as possible get as much as possible from an education that society has decided is powerful and worthwhile.

Clearly this is something that any progressive society would want for its children. We are more interested in educating independent citizens than well-trained workers. But reintroducing selection is reintroducing the premise that some students are more deserving of a broad education than others. It reintroduces the idea that some students are too thick to study subjects like history and chemistry, and that people who are going to work in a trade when they leave school need only to learn how to practice that trade. A great education should be available to everyone, regardless of the marks they’re going to get at the end of it.

Hopefully this particular zombie policy won’t get off the ground. Support for it will be hard for Greening and May to find beyond Middle England.

Kent still has a full grammar system. It also has some of the worst data for social mobility and for academic attainment in the country. Hopefully we won’t all be forced to become like Kent.


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