Education

Amidst talk of abolishing private schools, we must not forget the culpability of grammar schools

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As another white, rich old-Etonian rides roughshod over the UK parliament, the national news is dominated with talk of Brexit, trade deals and a potential general election.  Little else gets a look-in.  Yet one thing that caught my attention was a video produced by The Guardian, asking whether private schools ought to be abolished.

Of course, The Guardian’s answer to the question was predictable – private schools should be abolished in the interests of a fairer society.

I have no qualms with this point of view and am more than inclined towards it myself.  I attended a private school and can see perfectly well why they are harmful to society as a whole.  Most people know that private schools have no wider social benefit, even if they send their children to one.  The press is full of criticism for these elite institutions, and it is hard for private school parents and attendees to escape the judgement of the many who have seen the societal drawbacks of this schooling system.

But amidst the vociferous (and necessary) arguments against private schools, one equally (if not more) villainous institution gets away with comparatively little scrutiny.  

The grammar school.  Indeed, the detrimental effects of these schools are often downplayed in comparison to their parent-funded counterparts.  An article from earlier this year on why we need to talk about private schools appears to attempt to absolve grammar schools of responsibility for the educational divides that exist in the UK.  Promoting their book in The Guardian, historian David Kynaston and economist Francis Green insist that private schools are the real elephant in the room when it comes to debates about education.  They claim to ‘have become increasingly preoccupied with the private-school issue’, in the same paragraph as casually mentioning that they have sent their own children to grammar schools.

Yet the mention isn’t quite so nonchalant as it may first appear:

     our children have all been educated at state grammar schools; in neither case did we move to 

     the areas (Kent and south-west London) because of the existence of those schools

The fact that Green and Kynaston are at pains to tell the reader that they did not move to Kent and south-west London because of grammar school provision is very telling.  Both men were privately educated themselves, and are prominent academics in their respective fields.  There is no denying the privilege, both financial and educational, that has courted each of them throughout their lives.  

It stands to reason, then, that a privileged person will have the means to up sticks and move to a location that can ensure the continuation of their privilege throughout the generations.  In catchment areas for the country’s top state schools (often grammar schools), property prices sometimes come with a premium of an extra £100,000 or more than average house prices elsewhere in the country.  It is commonly the case that only people with substantial means can live in these areas.  It is of little consequence that Green and Kynaston both protest innocence in choosing their postcodes; simply living there is often implication enough.

Yet the house prices in grammar school catchment areas don’t seem to be enough for many supposedly left-wing commentators to condemn these establishments.  In an article for the Independent which begins with the title ‘Grammar schools aren’t the problem – posh boys with no clue are…’, James Moore appears to actually toy with the idea that grammar schools can be beneficial, and points the finger of blame squarely at public schools such as Eton.  

What is this strange phenomenon?  In 2018, Durham University released a damning report on grammar schools, which indicated that they offer little or no advantage to their pupils; their relative success is simply due to their pupils’ more affluent backgrounds.  The report also indicated that grammar schools were likely to be damaging to social mobility, and detrimental for society at large.  Yet neither Moore nor Green nor Kynaston seem prepared to challenge the existence of these archaic institutions.

And their silence on the issue is deafening.  Private schools are easy to attack – the direct financial transaction that takes place between parent and school obviously makes them inaccessible to all but a moneyed elite.  But it is precisely because of the indirect nature of the privilege they offer that grammar schools are so dangerous for society as a whole.  As wealthy middle class parents flock to affluent enclaves with grammar schools, and house prices rise, a kind of geographical segregation begins to take place.  Soon, only the wealthy middle classes can live in certain areas, and these wealthy middle classes (and their children) quickly fall out of touch with people from backgrounds different to their own.  Children are not just segregated in their educational establishment but in their lives as a whole.

This is not to say that abolishing grammar schools would solve the issues of geographical segregation that are continuing to increase in the UK today, but the move could certainly help.

After all, it is not just house prices and gentrification that are the only issues here – it is the very principle that a state-funded system allows selection of children at age 11 through a test that has little to do with true academic potential and far more to do with parental prosperity.  Even amidst the affluence of private school catchment areas, it is still those with the extra means to pay for private tuition whose children succeed.  It is only those with time and personal educational privilege who can coach their children for the demanding 11 plus.  

Grammar schools ingrain unequal opportunity into our education system in many subtle ways.  The varied and hidden nature of this inequality is what allows grammar schools to thrive and escape the scrutiny that is bestowed upon their private counterparts.  But because there is no direct financial transaction taking place when children are sent to these schools, it simply means that the inequality created by them becomes more subtle and therefore more insidious.  

And so those who claim to fight in the interests of equality for every child must be just as clear that grammar schools are as much of a scourge on our education system as private schools.  The reluctance of some people to say this indicates that for certain individuals, self-interest is acceptable if it is masked behind a cloak of public-sector provision.  But it isn’t – and we must be firm about this.  I blame no-one for the choices they make on an individual level, whether that is forking out for hefty private school fees or moving to the catchment area of a high-performing school.  But people who do this need to be honest about the system we live in – and if any of us genuinely want to challenge it, we must all fight for the establishment of a truly comprehensive education system.  

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