Prime Minister Theresa May has declared a new era of social mobility with a wave of modernised and expanded Grammar schools, having pledged £50 million in funding by 2020. Ms May claims the new push for an expanded Grammar school system “is about being unapologetic for our belief in social mobility and making this country a true meritocracy – a country that works for everyone.”
Theresa May highlights that today’s best schools are already selective – by house price and family wealth, which is certainly a problem for poorer children in the UK face when obtaining a high quality education however Ms May’s proposals are more likely to result in a social mobility disaster.
Ms May would see Grammar schools select the best and brightest students or more cynically, children from affluent backgrounds who’ve been tutored and trained professionally to score highly in entrance examinations such as the 11+. The rhetoric of boosting bright working class children to new heights of social mobility through elite Grammar schooling is enticing to lower-middle class parents who are keen to see their children live a good life. After all, don’t we all want the best for our children?
In reality the selectivity will continue to be wealth. Ms May has already jumped to provide the public with guarantees that Grammar schools would have quotas of poorer students to take in, but if the system was truly meritocratic and truly selected the best and brightest, poorer students would naturally become the majority in the classroom. In a UK divided deeply by wealth inequality the sheer number of poorer students naturally gives rise to a far greater number of bright and talented young people (unless you believe private tuition and wealth determines a child’s future talents). This promise, and a second promise of forcing Grammar schools to feed funding into failing schools surely demonstrates that Ms May is fully aware of the greater social divide Grammar schools will bring to our society?
A new wave of elitist schools instantly creates and us vs them attitude, where children in Grammar schools will be more likely to be taught a sense of entitlement and superiority over those children who failed to pass the 11+ examination. In the shorter term the expansion of the Grammar schools has the ability to starve comprehensive schools of funding and teaching talent they desperately need as the government continues to earmark more and more taxpayer funding for an ideological project. In the longer term social divisions are likely to take hold where those from Grammar schools will be far more likely to obtain good University places and City careers (much like today’s public / private education divide).
Labour Shadow Secretary Angela Rayner today slammed the Conservative government’s plans by using the ex-PM David Cameron’s own words; “I think it is delusional to think a policy of expanding Grammar schools is either; a good idea, a sellable idea, or even the right idea.”
The new PM’s plans are an abdication of responsibility to the majority in favour of the minority. Today’s schooling system faces issues with limited funding, under educated teaching staff, and swelling class sizes. All of the above are intricately linked together; a lack of funding for growing schools has led to this and the previous government employing a far greater role for non-trained teaching staff, and a lack of funding has seen class sizes in the UK soar past the OECD average.
It’s with these core issues the PM should turn to if she is serious about improving life chances for poorer students. In particular the early stages of education in the UK expose children to a much lower level of professional teaching staff compared to northern European counterparts who are often held as examples of successful education systems. Theresa May would also do well to heed the advice of educational experts around the globe who are calling for a pull away from endless tests and examinations (11+ anyone?) that encourage repetitive learning, instilling dangerous levels of anxiety and stress on children. Instead an education system that prepares children for real world experiences and develops critical thinking skills is thought to be of more value to our future society.