“Inclusive Grammar Schools” are a Contradiction in Terms

Can an education system designed to be exclusive ever be inclusive? That’s the ridiculous contradiction that we are having to consider today. All signs (and exposed documents) suggest the Government is proposing the reintroduction of grammar schools on the basis that this would be a new form of “inclusive not exclusive” selective education. This idea either reflects a monumental lack of understanding, or a concerning ability to believe the obviously false.

The entire purpose of selective education is to exclude. Children take tests and then a large majority of those who take the test are excluded, told that they are failures and sent to less good schools. The return of grammar schools inevitably means the return of secondary moderns or their equivalents. To deny this is to deny that words have meanings or that water is wet.

Attempts to justify this exclusion rest upon three arguments that fail to withstand any real scrutiny. The first attempted justification is that these tests reflect innate ability and that they are merely helping smart children reach their potential. The problem with this is that selective schools are (and historically have been) overwhelmingly filled with the children of the richest who have been tutored to pass the test. Children currently attending selective state schools are four or five times more likely to come from independent prep schools than they are from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. The private tuition industry is booming and it will be more than happy to help the wealthiest families push their children into schools where they are separated from the children of the rest of society. The idea that schools will be able to create a tutor-proof test should be read in a similar manner to claims that they will create a flying pig: with a healthy amount of scepticism.

The second argument being used today is that to some extent selective education already exists, but by house price rather than by test. This does identify a real problem with the school system. Some very good schools have catchment areas that exclude all but the wealthiest of families. There are ways to improve this system, through quotas (see below), lotteries, or by improving the standards of schools in poorer areas. None of this is a reason to give schools for the wealthiest more ways to exclude other children. Areas with selective schools have a wider gap between the results of the richest and the rest, without the average child doing any better. Selection by house price is unacceptable, but it takes a tremendous failure of logic to suggest that the way to solve it is by making it worse.

The final argument circulating today is that there are ways to mitigate selection to make it a little bit fairer. One of the policies suggested is that grammar schools could include a quota of children who receive free school meals. Whilst this would be an improvement on pure selective education, it doesn’t actually make it good idea. It would still involve most children being sent to less good schools. It would make more sense to introduce this to the current system to stop back door selection through house prices, than using it as a way to make a system designed to help the wealthiest slightly less awful.

The research on the topic is overwhelmingly clear: grammar schools are bad for equality, bad for social mobility and bad for education in general. The Government is aiming to create more inclusive grammar schools, but they won’t actually be inclusive, just a less terrible version of a really terrible policy. It should listen to the litany of former ministers, government advisors and education campaigners and just drop this bad idea. 

Tim Stacey, Senior Policy and Research Advisor