by Iesha Small

As a third generation immigrant, it was initially hard not to applaud Theresa May’s desire to transform Britain to become a ‘Great Meritocracy’: I too want to see a country where ‘it is your talent and hard work that matter not who your parents are or what your accent sounds like’. However, I am concerned about the means in which she plans to achieve this: by expanding grammar schools. If, as all the evidence suggests, they enhance the gap between the most able and the rest, are they the true vehicle for creating a fairer Britain?

I’ve taught for over a decade in schools that were, according to educational sector jargon, ‘challenging.’ In practice, that meant they had a lot of poor kids, with high proportions of them not White British, but as someone committed to social mobility, they were the where I thought my skills were best used and needed. Furthermore, I’ve been one of the few who have had the privilege of a grammar school background: my Jamaican grandparents wanted the best for their children, but didn’t know how to navigate the English school system. My parents were educated in 70s London and they experienced horrific racism and low expectations. This is probably why they were so keen for me to go to a good school – which, to them in early 90s, meant a grammar school in a different borough. With this experience, you would think I would be an advocate of the grammar system but I saw the difference in my educational experience and further opportunities compared to that of others in my family and realized that I wanted a world where everybody had access to a great education not just those who could pass a test at a particular age.

Usually when we talk about deprivation or disadvantage, it’s assumed that BME people are included but, when it comes to grammar schools, it’s not quite that clear cut. A recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that grammar schools have proportionally fewer deprived pupils than their local areas and that non-white pupils are more likely to attend grammar schools than pupils from white backgrounds. This suggests that many non-white students who attend grammar schools are, in fact, middle class. Why do middle class BME parents fight so hard to get their children to get into selective schools? Because they know the potential benefits. Pupils from selective and independent schools are more likely to receive offers for university. Attending grammar schools makes BME students more likely to get a place (they are less likely to without this). Whilst we all want a fairer and more equal society, Theresa May’s reforms don’t appear to be the way to achieve this. They may benefit more of those who are able to access a selective school but, for those who aren’t, many of whom will be poor, or otherwise disadvantaged, they appear only to widen the gaps.

According to May’s logic, where grammars ‘are hugely popular with parents’ and ‘good for the pupils that attend them’, grammars are vital to increase parental choice and social mobility. This new system, the Prime Minster said, would be unlike the socially divisive, binary system of the 50s. Her main argument for this is that there is now a wider range of schools available, such as academies and free schools, adding to the local comprehensive mix.

Does this educational diversity automatically make things fairer, though? Unfortunately not. In counties where selection still exists, the evidence suggests that academic outcomes are worse for children attending non-selective schools in selective areas. The overall effect is that the educational attainment gap in these areas widens, with the most able doing better, and those outside that group doing worse. Whilst May uses the rhetoric of choice, in reality, it’s not parents who choose grammars; it’s grammars who get to select their intake. And frankly, that doesn’t make for a more socially mobile society at all.

In the speech, Mrs May uses ‘ordinary working class’ at least 9 times, presumably to appeal to a white working class UKIP voter, or middle class white voters who consider themselves poor compared to obviously wealthy peers. Given what we know about the complex nature of deprivation, I would argue that no such definition exists. She talks to those who are worried that the world changing around them ‘means that their children and grandchildren won’t have the same opportunities they have enjoyed in life.’ Conversely, if we look at many immigrant families, such as mine, they have often moved countries precisely because they want their children to have better opportunities, not the same ones, so maybe they aren’t in Mrs May’s ‘ordinary’ definition.

Mrs May professes to want a more equal society but she isn’t offering a revolution, merely a tinkering of the system which has led to existing inequalities. Grammar schools aren’t the issue. Selection, academic or social, is – via whatever means. Calling the new selective schools ‘new grammars’ won’t eliminate the old problems. There will still be winners and the losers will disproportionally be society’s poor and disadvantaged. The Prime Minster may wish to create a meritocracy, but the merits are only decided by the existing elite.

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Iesha Small is passionate about education and social change. She is an associate at LKMco think tank working for a future where all young people have great chances in adulthood. She has extensive experience across the educational sector as a teacher, senior manager and governor. She writes and speaks about education, leadership, authenticity and challenging the status quo. @ieshasmall

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