Curious Thoughts: Grammars and Social Mobility

Grammars & Social Mobility

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Curious Thoughts: Are Grammar Schools the Engines of Social Mobility?

This blog was originally published on 5th May 2017.

Grammar Schools must serve ordinary families
Justine Greening has declared that grammar schools must serve ‘ordinary families’. This follows on the heels of Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent announcements that the government would like to see new selective state schools established for the first time in a generation. May pledged to help ‘just about managing families’ in the Schools that Work for Everyone White Paper.

But a study published by Education Datalab today suggests that, for families who apply for grammar schools in Kent, the odds are loaded against children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

So what is an ‘ordinary family’?
Good question. John Humphrys quizzed Greening on the Today show and she confirmed that yes, she was referring to families whose children are not in receipt of free school meals or Pupil Premium; those ‘not on benefits’.

The government has launched a consultation to collect and analyse data on families earning below the median income level, whose children do not qualify for free school meals. It will link pupil data with parent income and confirm whether a modest income equates to an ‘ordinary working family’.

The Engines of Social Mobility
Greening and May posit grammar schools as the ‘engines of social mobility’. They want to advance a meritocracy, giving families more choice so that high achievers can cut their own path to success.

What is social mobility? It’s the notion that anyone, regardless of his or her origins, can have a fair start in life, and if they work hard, get a good education and achieve success, they can live lives better than those of previous generations.

American Social Scientist Robert Putnam (2015) however, argues that our children are growing up in an increasingly separate and unequal world in which the stepping stones to upward mobility are being steadily removed.

Social Mobility in the UK – it’s getting worse, not better

In the UK, the recent Labour Force Survey indicates that inequality is entrenched, 45% of earnings inequalities are passed across the generations. 31% of the population experience downward social mobility. Children from professional families are 2.5 times more likely to go into a professional job than their less advantaged counterparts. Working class children are 2.3 times more likely to go into working class jobs.

The disadvantages stack up for children of the less well-off.

Class and culture matter
Not only that, but those from working class backgrounds who make it into a profession, experience gaps in earnings compared to their colleagues from more affluent backgrounds. This relates to their soft skills – they are less likely to ask for pay rises, have less access to networks and opportunities; and sometimes exclude themselves from promotion for fear of ‘not fitting in’. Other explanations for the ‘class pay gap’ offered in the Social Mobility Commission’s report include conscious or unconscious discrimination resulting in ‘culture matching’ in the workplace.

Inequality widening
This inequality is widening. Those born in the 1980s are the first post-war cohort not to start their working years with higher incomes than their immediate predecessors. Home ownership is in sharp decline, especially among the young; and today, only one in eight children from low-income backgrounds is likely to become a high income earner as an adult. Putnam concludes that the inequality of opportunity is a far more widening chasm than the wealth gap itself.

Advantages stack up for the rich
Lower income families are increasingly worse off as the breakdown of the manufacturing industry has given way to part time and zero hour contracts. At the same time, the resources available to wealthier families appear to be expanding. This is the sort of declining social mobility that Putnam (2015) believes will ‘plunge in years ahead’.

Can Grammar Schools fix it?
Grammar schools are selective. Today’s 163 grammar schools make up 5% of state schools. Less than 3% of their pupils are entitled to free school meals compared to 18% in local communities.

13% of their pupils have come from outside of the state sector (fee-paying prep schools).

It’s fair to conclude that grammars are super selective and not accessible to the poorest children.

So are Grammar Schools the answer? What the evidence shows.
So we can conclude that grammar Schools aren’t accessible to less advantage children. But would access to a grammar education aid social mobility?

The evidence shows that:
  • Only a quarter to a third of the country’s most successful people are a product of selective schools
  • Pupils from poorer backgrounds do only marginally better in grammar schools compared to their comprehensive school counterparts – the equivalent of one eighth of a GCSE grade in fact (and even then, researchers couldn’t be sure that the grammar school pupils weren’t slightly different to those at comprehensives)

Perhaps the problem with social mobility in the UK is less about the quality of secondary education and more attributable to a range of factors that an 11 plus examination is ill suited to address. A topic for a future Curious Minds blog.

Equality of access
The stark attainment gaps between poorer pupils and their more privileged peers are already apparent before they reach 11.

There’s a booming private tutoring industry with four out of ten children in London accessing extra teaching.

Introducing selective state schools without some measure to ensure access for all would most likely create exclusive schools for those middle class families able to afford tutoring. It hasn’t yet been possible to make a tutor-proof grammar school entry test. If access to tutoring can’t be offered, The Sutton Trust reports this would ‘almost certainly lower social mobility overall.’

Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers says “the facts of the matter are that if you are a child of poor parents, you are disproportionately unlikely to get into a grammar school.’

How might Grammar Schools more fairly benefit children from disadvantaged backgrounds?
The Sutton Trust are working with grammar schools to enable them to benefit more children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Their recommendations include:
  • Tests to allow children to enter grammar schools at different ages (avoiding ‘crude cliff edge’ decisions)
  • Grants for poorer pupils to prepare for tests through private tutoring
  • Lowering the academic grades needed for those from less privileged homes

What’s the alternative?
There are high achievers in every state school. The Sutton Trust is challenging government to stretch and support the vast majority of high achievers who are currently in non-selective schools. The Trust extends this challenge and calls for the government to go further, to create equally desirable schools for children with other creative or vocational talents.

The unfortunate truth is that every year significant numbers of children in the state sector score in the top 10% nationally at the end of primary school, but five years later those same young people are only in the top 25% for GCSEs.

One powerful action to really impact social mobility in the UK? A national strategy to support academic high achievers in ALL schools.

Sources: Putnam, Robert, D., 2015. Our Kids New York: Simon & Schuster

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