Grammar schools helping “ordinary working families”?

On becoming prime minister Theresa May decided to expand grammar schools in order to benefit ‘ordinary working families’. There is no evidence that this is what grammar schools do. This week a former Department of Education official Iain Mansfield tried to provide the evidence, and failed miserably.

Firstly, he claims that 45% of grammar school pupils are from families with below median income, i.e. the poorest half of the population. This is based on a faulty DfE calculation  according to which 70% of the population are the poorest 50% ! No wonder the DfE has disowned its own calculation as ‘provisional’ and ‘requiring further work’. In fact, expert research has shown that grammar schools give around 25% of their places to the poorer half of the population.

Secondly, the logic of Mansfield’s report is nonsense. It goes like this:

A) because 45% of pupils at grammar schools come from families with below median incomes (“ordinary working families”)


B) because grammar school pupils are more likely to get into Cambridge and other high-ranking universities,


C) pupils from these ‘ordinary working families’ would have more chance of getting into Cambridge if they attended grammar schools.

There is nothing in Mansfield’s report to suggest that it is substantially grammar school pupils from ‘ordinary working families’ who are winning places at Cambridge. In fact, from figures later in the report (page 53) we find that Cambridge University only admitted 22 grammar school pupils living in the poorest fifth of areas. To emphasise, the 163 grammar schools drawing pupils from a quarter of England sent only 22 pupils to Cambridge from the poorest fifth of areas.

By contrast, grammar schools sent 13 times as many of their pupils living in the richest fifth of areas to Cambridge – 297 pupils.

We can deduce from the data (page 53) that if grammar schools were expanded throughout England, as the Prime Minister wishes, perhaps another 18 pupils living in the poorest fifth of the country might gain a Cambridge place. That is hardly a convincing argument for wrecking comprehensive schools across three quarters of the land.

Nowhere in the report is there any suggestion that Oxford and Cambridge universities should change their admissions systems to overcome social discrimination. As it is, private schools and grammar schools have all the advantages because of their longstanding connections and traditions. They know all about the special entrance exams, what to write in a CV and how to succeed in interviews. Sixth Form tutors at these schools have conversations with the admissions tutors of particular Oxford and Cambridge colleges.

Cambridge gives over over half its places to private schools, which serve just 7% of the population. The university gives only a third of its places to comprehensive schools, although they serve three quarters of the population.

Comparing the areas where students live regardless of the schools they attend, 1240 places are given to students from the richest fifth of areas, compared with 70 living in the poorest fifth of the country. This shows that the university has some responsibility for this inequality. As a modest step, it could, for example, provide foundation courses  for a few hundred students from poorer families (as one college has started doing for a handful). It could provide summer schools for young people living in poorer parts of England.

Grammar schools are not a vehicle for social mobility. They do nothing to improve the life chances of children from “ordinary working families”. Like the private fee-paying schools, they are part of a machine for reproducing a starkly divided society.

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