Grammar Schools and the Rise of Post-Evidence Politics

On hearing that grammar schools were coming back, I immediately thought thank goodness Theresa May and her cabinet had not taken homeopathic medicine and believed it worked. If they had, that would be the evidence base used to justify introducing homeopathy into every hospital.

The New Labour project defined the late nineties and noughties and its legacy is now beginning to be evaluated by historians. Whatever that may be, it is fair to say that prior to 1997 it was rare for schools and hospitals to be at the centre of any election and subsequent government programme. New Labour changed this in creating and maintaining a zeitgeist in which public services were at the heart of politics. It is now clear that Theresa May is continuing this in regards to her recent announcement

However, there is a profound difference between schools and hospitals. Only hospitals have a National Institute for Clinical Excellence which issues evidence-based guidance – and rightly so. Unfortunately, education, a social science, merely has a range of experts and commentators. We discovered that former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s attitude to experts during the Brexit debate when he stated that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. 

It is hard to dissect the claims being made on behalf of expanding grammar schools because those proposing them use so little, if any, evidence to support them. Instead, it seems that Theresa May and others are relying on anecdotes, appealing to our emotions and, dangerously, to our fears. They will say they are appealing to our hopes and trying to address social mobility, and I don’t doubt that they are. However, the reality is that fear tends to characterise such debates without the participants realising.

It is a simple fear and one nearly every parent, grandparent, godparent, uncle and aunt shares. The fear that the child he or she cares about will not do as well as they could at school. This is particularly prominent for parents who themselves experienced a divisive grammar system. I know this not just from my work but from sitting in silence at countless social events listening to others. I have to listen because my partner bans me as a Headteacher from participating or - as she would call it - ‘pronouncing’!

Once we have a such a fear, we are so emotionally engaged with the fear that we find it hard to listen to any rational argument that might address it. In hospitals we are given scientific evidence and a professional that society has encouraged us to trust. Let’s call it ‘White Coat’ syndrome, which also explains why so many of the staff at skincare counters are dressed in white coats. In any education debate, particularly the one surrounding grammar schools, we don’t have scientific evidence and we don’t have professionals we are encouraged to trust. In fact, I recall that Michael Gove called the latter “part of the Blob”. 

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Dixon of Dock Green was a TV show about a local police officer who controlled local crime through ‘being on the beat’. The show was so successful it became, in the eyes of the public, an idealised model for how policing should be. It was an oversimplified and familiar way to solve a problem with the promise of a happy ending for everyone. This ignored the complexities of crime and engineered a solution which was easy to understand and seemingly made sense. In fact, we still occasionally see the media call for ‘local bobbies on the beat’ despite there being no evidence of impact and police officers never actually being on the beat – aside from on a TV show. The final irony of this is that the Wikipedia page for Dixon of Dock Green states that the homily delivered at the end of each episode was originally filmed on the steps of Ealing Grammar School. 

Around 5% of secondary aged children attend state-funded grammar schools and it seems that the main argument to expand them is to ensure that more children and young people have access to these high-achieving bodies. Interestingly, a similar percentage of students attend leading private schools. Yet the government does not choose to use this number as an argument to give all schools the same level of funding that private schools have as a means of addressing social mobility. Instead, funding per child in schools in England is set to fall.

Grammar schools select children at aged 10½ through the 11+ test. At that age, the family will have had more impact on attainment than anything else. Raising the age of selection to 18 or 21 when school and university exams are taken at least allows schools to have a greater influence. The younger children in school are selected, the more impact parents and socioeconomic background will have on the result.

It does seem that the government are, commendably, finally worried about the lack of social mobility in this country. Yet the proposed solution is to choose a few children through a test and allow them into a school where it’s claimed they will get a better education. We don’t actually know how it will be better and the evidence suggests that it probably isn’t -  but we’ve been told it will be better. At the same time, our worst fears have been stroked in telling us that the education the child we care about would otherwise get - their present education at a state school -  is no longer good enough.

Most schools set or stream in order to group students with similar levels of educational attainment. Some schools even create ‘a grammar school pathway’. Most schools offer a range of additional opportunities for the Most Able -  such as additional languages, tuition, triple science at GCSE and A Level, computer science, visits and links with Russell Group universities and the opportunity to study subjects earlier. If the government wants to do more for the Most Able and has some evidence that we are not doing well enough at present, universities should be forced to use their Fair Access funding and private schools to use their charitable status funding bonus to a greater extent. This is an alternative to expanding grammar schools, where the brightest are skimmed off into schools devoid of pesky lower and average ability children and with virtually no special needs children. It seems the new purpose of education is to segregate children as opposed to taking notice of the evidence - which has been completely ignored. Such evidence shows that London is mainly comprehensive, and does far better than Kent - which is mostly grammar. 

It is often said that we are in the era of ‘post-truth politics’. I’m not sure about that, but I do know that we are in era of ‘post-evidence politics’ when it comes to education, and that this is made easier when our fears are amplified.

Gary Phillips
London Leadership Strategy Director and Headteacher of Lilian Baylis Technology School
September 2016

14th September 2016
Posted by: 

subscribe to our monthly newsletter