Theresa May has gone to the country asking for a mandate. With Brexit dominating debate, she has argued that a stronger Tory government will offer stability in negotiations with Europe. But it’s easy to forget that there are other issues which the government must be held accountable for.
May’s grammar schools policy has reared its ugly head again, showing the ideological front of the Tories and continuing their mismanagement of the education system.
The policy represents the latest move in the Conservative Party’s dysfunctional education strategy. Their tenure has seen EMA scrapped, tuition fees raised (twice), student grants abolished, student loan repayment interest rates increased, and the biggest cut to per-pupil funding since the 1970s. It’s almost as if they don’t care about young people.
“May is undoubtedly wrong”
The right wing seems to have carried over its fondness for a complete lack of evidence from the Brexit debate, extending a seemingly post-evidence trend that is becoming a growing worry in modern-day politics. See also, Donald Trump.
May has somehow deluded herself into thinking that grammar schools will benefit the masses and increase the poor levels of social mobility in this country. She is undoubtedly wrong. But perhaps the most astonishing aspect of her advocation of this policy is that it seems incredibly unlikely that May doesn’t know she’s wrong.
May is willingly pushing a policy that she knows will be of detriment to the working classes. This from the prime minister who pledged to be driven “not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours”: that is, the interests of ordinary working-class families. Who promised to “make Britain a country that works for everyone”. Who assured us that her party “will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you”.
But, in fairness, most of us never believed any of that in the first place.
“Poorer children lag further behind”
The ridiculousness of this policy has been put into a damning context. The OECD’s head of education has said that grammar schools benefit wealthy families without raising overall standards. And an investigation by the BBC concluded that, where grammar schools are prominent, “poorer children lag further behind, richer children move further ahead – and the losses at the bottom are much larger than the gains at the top”.
In this light, we can see that grammar schools are clearly a step backwards for social mobility – contrary to the claims of May and many of her Conservative colleagues, including Education Secretary Justine Greening.
While the problem of social mobility is not exclusive to grammar schools – class inequality extends across the whole education system – a selective system certainly does advantage the rich.
By the age of 11, when children take the test to decide if they have enough intellectual worth to merit a place in a grammar school, class differences have already begun to take their toll on many children. Richer parents have had the opportunity to buy a house in an area with good schools, which often prices out many working-class families. And, in this house, these parents’ children have more space to relax and study in a comfortable home environment.
“The advantages that middle-class parents can exert are myriad”
These parents can afford medicines to ensure days at school aren’t missed due to illness. These parents may have a better standard of education themselves, allowing them to understand and manipulate the education system and admissions procedures to their child’s advantage. They may be able to better heat their home, better feed their children, get them to school more easily, take time off work to support them, make sure they don’t have to babysit younger siblings, help out around the house or take a part-time job – the advantages that middle-class parents can exert are myriad.
And when their child turns 11, middle-class parents can pay for a tutor to help their child pass the 11+. It is no surprise, then, that only 3% of grammar school entrants are entitled to free school meals, compared to 18% in non-grammar areas.
When Jeremy Corbyn presented much of this illuminating and critical evidence to May during PMQs, she floundered. And we got a glimpse of what a strong and united opposition can do: highlight the hypocrisy of a Tory party that claims to be for the working-classes; show the inadequacy of May, her leadership and her policies; and, most importantly, defend the working-classes from further disadvantage in society.
In contrast to the Tories, Labour’s new policy on taxing private schools to fund free school meals shows a real intent to reduce (educational) inequality in society. If Theresa May and the Conservatives are really interested in social mobility and improving the lives of the working classes, they would do better to abolish the grammar school system, not expand it.
image: GotCredit via Flickr