This might seem an odd blog title to be written by someone who disagrees with grammar schools. But, if the explosion of edu-blogging has done anything, then it has been to raise the quality of the debate about education. Arguments about education are these days better informed and more carefully argued. It is always frustrating therefore to read a blog post that trots out a low quality argument, and, if anything is going to draw that sort of argument out of the woodwork, then it is the grammar school debate.
For an example of the sort of poor-quality argument supporting grammar schools, have a look at this post:
For an example of a far more carefully reasoned argument in favour of grammar schools, take a look at the following:
I am therefore going in this post to have a little exercise in cognitive dissonance by setting out what I think supporters of grammar schools need to argue if they want to win the grammar school debate. If this is seen as contributing to a cause with which I disagree, then I hope it might be understood as moving the debate on from its tired old positions.
Case 1: Grammar schools help the kids on free school meals who get in.
Mr Spock might have logically reasoned that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but if you are willing to justify the opposite case, then grammars are just the ticket. We know that pupils on Free School Meals do much better in selective schools than they do in comprehensive schools and that the attainment gap is very narrow. As long as you are happy offsetting the outcomes of a relatively small proportion of pupils on free school meals against the a larger number who do worse under the selective system, then you won’t have too much difficulty winning your argument. You are in short arguing from different premises to your anti-grammar-school campaigner: whereas they want to focus on social mobility for all children (on average), your premise is that it is better for a small number to excel.
If you are not comfortable starting from this premise, however, then you have a few other options open to you.
Case 2: It’s not the job of a school to advance social mobility.
To make this case you can pull the rug out from under the feet of all those pesky anti-grammar-school acolytes who come armed with statistics showing that, on average (see Point 1 above), children from less well off backgrounds get worse outcomes in selective areas than non-selective areas. If you do not see the purpose of schooling as social mobility, then you do not need to worry about these figures, for you see them as irrelevant to the debate.
This does of course mean that you yourself will not be able to play the social mobility card, which is a bit annoying as it is one of the things supporters of grammar schools most frequently argue. If you do want to argue that grammar schools can help social mobility, then you have another option.
Case 3: The grammar schools of the future need not be like the grammar schools of the past and present.
Theresa May is sensible enough to recognise that she needs to make this point (“no return to the 1950s” etc.), but it is surprisingly how rarely this argument is explicitly made. I would not bother trying to defend selective education in places like Kent, at least if you’re not willing to make either of Case 1 or Case 2 above: here the system has been shown very clearly to hinder rather than help social mobility. Your best bet (if you’re not willing to argue Case 1 or Case 2) is instead to argue that the grammars of the future need not be like the grammars of the past. It is possible that maybe there are ways of running a selective system that do not come with the disadvantages pointed to by the Green Paper and most of the data-nerds in the field. Perhaps your model of selection will work differently: a good example of this is those arguments based on a more valid and reliable 11+ test. On the plus side, this undermines the arguments against you based on data, for those data refer only to systems of selection already in existence, and not the new system you propose. The downside is that you may have difficult winning the argument with nothing but prediction on your side.
To my mind these really are the only three options available to you if you want to win the grammar school debate in favour of selection. All three are valid positions on which you can make a case. I’ll quick refer now to some of the arguments I think do not work, and which are likely to hold you back.
- Grammar schools, as they currently exist, improve social mobility – no, we know on average they do not. Your best bet here is Case 1 above.
- Grammar schools defend a rigorous academic curriculum – this is a good argument, but rather undermined by a new education ethos that has emerged over recent years which is explicitly and unashamedly focused on academic curricula in comprehensive schools – have a look at Michaela Free School, West London Free School, East London Science School, Inspiration Trust, Bedford Free School, and so on.
- Grammar schools give parents choice – No, they do not. If a grammar school selects the top 20% of the ability range, then 80% of parents do not have the choice to send their children to a grammar school. What you really mean is grammar schools give parents the right to the hope of a grammar school education.
- Those who went to a grammar school should not withhold this from young people today – did I mention I attended a seaside comprehensive? But why does this have any effect on the validity of my arguments? It is nothing more than a veiled ad hominem argument to say that those who went to selective schools should not be able to argue against them.
- Education is currently a disaster – grammars will sort it out – education has always been a disaster since the days of Socrates. No one is every happy with the system and it has always been in a state of near collapse. Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I am more than happy to point to the major flaws in our system, particularly regarding behaviour and curriculum. But if you believe that competition raises standards overall, then all schools have to be able (in theory) to achieve the same outcomes. Grammar schools undermine competition for they make it impossible for the non-selective schools to compete. To claim that grammars will solve our problems, you’re going to have to do some magic with Case 3 above.
It is about time the grammar school debate moved on. I would argue it is not going to move on until advocates of selection adopt one of Cases 1-3, or otherwise give up on selective schools all together. Of course, there might be alternatives between selection vs comprehensive schools (e.g. grammar streams, partial selection), and I’m hoping to write some more on that in the near future.