Coming Out of School 1927 by L.S. Lowry 1887-1976

This is the full version of the article I wrote last month for the International New York Times on the grammar schools debate in Britain. (I cannot publish my INYT articles on Pandaemonium until a month after it is published in the newspaper.) It was originally published under the headline ‘Why Britain Fails in Class’.

Few people could have predicted the first policy on which Britain’s new prime minister would take a stand. It is none of the issues that have dominated British politics in recent months: Brexit, immigration, terrorism. Rather, Theresa May has decided it is to be grammar schools – state-supported secondary schools that select their pupils through an exam taken at age 11 known as the 11-plus. Once a centerpiece of Britain’s education system, they have largely been phased out over recent decades in favour of a non-selective school system.

The history of grammar schools goes back to the Middle Ages, but the modern version emerged out of the 1944 Education Act, one of a series of laws that shaped social policy in postwar Britain. The act introduced free education up to the age of 15, and set up three kinds of schools: grammar, technical and secondary moderns. Few technical schools were ever built, so children came to be divided between grammar schools, which focused on academic studies, and whose pupils were destined for universities and better professions, and secondary moderns, which were intended for children deemed suitable only for less skilled jobs.

Over time, it became clear that what separated pupils in the two types of schools was not ability, but class. A vast majority of children in grammar schools were from middle-class backgrounds; a vast majority of poor children were condemned to secondary moderns. In 1965, the Labour government began replacing grammar schools and secondary moderns with a nonselective ‘comprehensive’ system, under which all children went to a single type of state school. A handful of Conservative local authorities in England have continued to maintain selection, but the numbers are small. Of more than 3000 secondary schools in England, just 163 are grammars.

The debate about grammar schools has become a proxy for a discussion of class. For many on the left, grammar schools institutionalize class inequality, shutting out the poor and catering to the wealthy. For many on the right, opposition to grammar schools is an expression of class envy and a misguided egalitarian plan to ‘level down’ rather than ‘level up’.

In recent years, however, even the Conservative Party has rowed back on its traditional support for grammar schools, as part of an attempt to ‘modernize’ itself and shed its old image of elitism. So why has Theresa May reignited the debate with a promise that any school can turn itself into a grammar school by selecting its pupils by ability? In her first address from the steps of No 10 Downing Street, as Britain’s new Prime Minister, she promised to tackle the problem of inequality. Supporters of the new grammar schools policy claim this is the first fruit of that promise. But the evidence that grammar schools hinder rather than enable social mobility is even stronger now than it was half a century ago.

In areas that retain grammar schools, fewer than 3 per cent of grammar school pupils are eligible for free school meals (a proxy measure of social deprivation), compared with 18 per cent in non-grammar schools. High-achieving children from poor backgrounds are less likely to be selected for grammar schools than those from prosperous areas with similar abilities. Over all, school results in Kent, one of the few English counties that retains a selective system, are similar to those in the rest of the country, but poor children do worse and rich children do better.

If there is evidence that grammar schools help entrench inequality, there is, however, little evidence that phasing them out has helped improve social mobility. A landmark 2005 study from the London School of Economics, which described social mobility in Britain as ‘low and falling’, showed that two children born, respectively, into poor and prosperous families in 1958 were more equal as adults than two similar children born in 1970. More recently, a 2010 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that on social mobility Britain came near the bottom of the class among rich nations.

The geography of social mobility has also changed. A government report published earlier this year observed that the key division now is between London, where even children from disadvantaged backgrounds do relatively well, and coastal and old industrial towns in the north and east of England, where most of what the report termed ‘social mobility coldspots’ are to be found.

This division maps onto a deepening political faultline. London overwhelmingly voted Remain in the recent referendum on membership in the European Union. Many of those ‘coldspots’ are in areas that voted to Leave; they’re also areas where, unlike London, the populist UK Independence Party enjoys significant support. Issues of social mobility and social disaffection have merged. Against this background, the new grammar schools policy seems less about improving education for the poor than about stemming social disaffection, the political consequences of which are becoming unsettling.


The fact that neither selective nor nonselective school systems have improved social mobility in Britain might suggest that the problem lies in the very idea of using schools to engineer a more equal society. A decent education system can help a few individuals progress beyond the circumstances of their birth, but it is unlikely to change fundamentally the social and economic structures that entrench inequality and restrain social mobility.

In focusing on social mobility, what has gone missing is the idea of education as a good in itself. One of the reasons people regard grammar schools with nostalgia is that they seem to represent a standard of good education. But they do so for only a few.

At the heart of selective schooling is the assumption that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are better off getting ‘vocational’ training rather than being intellectually challenged. The trouble is, that sentiment has persisted in the nonselective schools, too. The result is that Britain has ended up with a state system in which every child receives an equally mediocre education.

Expanding selective education will do little to improve the overall quality of British schools. The new grammar school policy addresses neither the problem of stalled social mobility nor the question of what good education means for all children.


The paintings are RS Lowry’s ‘Coming out of school’ and one of Cy Twombly’s ‘blackboard paintings’.


  1. Hans Odeberg

    I notice you put ‘vocational’ training within quotation marks. Is it to indicate that you think the training has very little to do with getting a vocation, and more to do with letting children we do not know how to handle pass their years away weaving baskets until they can be sent out the back door?

    Either way, as an engineer, I think vocational training should be valued more. I was proud to get training for a “real job” at university. There should be no shame for our young to train as carpenters, welders and nurses. Provided these are the paths they desire, and not the paths given them by a school system which only finds itself capable of teaching a small elite.

    I suspect you are right about the presence of grammar schools not being the saviour of British education – nor their absence bringing about the end of a divided society. From my Swedish perspective, we have not had any grammar schools since the 60’s, and ‘public’ schools (strange name for schools reserved for a privileged few) have been reserved for the royal family and their hangarounds. We still have segregation, increasing segregation. Middle-class families live in middle-class areas, poor families live in poor areas, thus automatically dividing the children into separate schools. While we have a right to freely choose schools, with the state paying the fees even for the privately owned schools, few take advantage of the opportunity. If anything, the option to opt out is used by middle-class parents who find their school being filled with too many ‘problematic’ children.

    Teaching for adults is something I feel gets too little attention. One of the things our socialist government got right back in the 70’s was to put considerable effort into training adults. When I did my PhD, I shared a room with a young working-class man who had taken the long way around: first basic vocational training, then evening classes to fulfill the formal requirements for applying to university, followed by an engineering degree. Young people sometimes miss the road to university not because they are blocked by the system, but because they are not interested at that age. Having the opportunity for 2nd chances will benefit both them and society.

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