To move forwards on inequality we must not go back to grammar schools

Grammar schools are not the answer. SpeedKingz/

Across the political spectrum everybody agrees that children should have equal opportunities to “achieve their potential”. Unfortunately, all the evidence shows that you can’t have equality of opportunity without greater equality of outcome: if we want more social mobility we’re going to have to reduce social and economic equality first.

Income inequality is strongly correlated with low social mobility, with lower average educational performance and with bigger gaps in educational attainment between rich and poor children. Now, in a move to address the ban on grammar schools that the prime minister argues has been “sacrificing children’s potential”, the government is proposing to reintroduce them. But grammar schools can’t fix this entrenched inequality between the rich and poor: all they do is perpetuate it for the vast majority of children.

Disadvantage starts early

Inequalities in educational attainment appear shockingly early in life. Even before they reach preschool age, disadvantaged children (by which I mean children from poor areas and with poor parents) lag behind the children of more affluent and educated parents. This isn’t because they are inherently less capable than other children.

The results of the global Programme for Student Assessment (PISA) tests run by the OECD show that in some countries, such as Canada, Finland, Japan and South Korea, up 70% of poor 15-year-olds do better in school than predicted. In the UK less than a quarter of poor children manage to exceed expectations based on their family background.

Theresa May: Bringing back grammars. Nick Ansell/PA Wire

The OECD has also shown that comprehensive schooling narrows differences in educational achievement by social class. And in their rigorous examination of the evidence, The Truth About Our Schools, authors Melissa Benn and Janet Downs exposed the failure of the grammar school system to boost social mobility and described the long-term damage caused to people who failed the 11+ entrance exam.

Also highly relevant is research from the University of Bristol, which found that black children are systematically marked down by their classroom teachers, compared to the marks they are given in national tests marked remotely by teachers who do not know them. White British children from poor neighbourhoods were also marked down, compared to children from more affluent areas.

This “unconscious stereotyping” and discriminatory marking was most pronounced in areas with fewer black or poor children. This phenomenon, where children do better or worse depending on what their teachers expect of them is known as the “Pygmalion effect” and has been known since the late 1960s.

Economic and cultural inequalities have deep-seated effects on all of us, and teachers are not immune. We need them to be trained to understand how social class and socioeconomic status affect their expectations of, and attitudes towards, their students.

Structural inequality

It is hopelessly unrealistic to expect our education system to fix the damage caused by poverty and inequality. Efforts to widen participation in higher education have benefited the middle class more than poorer children.

Education researcher Diane Reay at the University of Cambridge has said that working class children are too often seen as “inadequate learners with inadequate cultural backgrounds”. She found that many working-class children describe a sense of educational worthlessness and feeling that they are not valued or respected within their schools. They feel that teachers look down on them, make them look stupid, or think they’re dumb.

And it’s unrealistic to expect parents to provide educationally rich and nurturing environments for their kids when their own health and well-being are undermined by poverty and inequality. Long working hours and high levels of debt create situations of chronic stress and time poverty.

When parenting is compromised by the way we structure our society and economy then that is what we need to change, rather than proposing tweaks to the education system. Successful modern societies raise their educational performance, not by focusing on the “talented” few and thus wasting the potential and capabilities of the majority, but by creating the economic and educational environment in which all children can thrive. We can achieve so much more than we currently manage but grammar schools can only carry us backwards, not forwards.