Do selective schools help children from poorer backgrounds move up the social ladder? Or do they reinforce the gap between rich and poor? The question of whether we should have more grammar schools or not reaches beyond evidence into a discussion on values, but good evidence should inform the discussion – so why do political activists claim that academic selection can ‘act as a motor for social mobility,’ when the evidence says the opposite?
Renewed calls for more grammar schools come from Conservative Voice, political campaigners within the Tory party who are at least honest about the campaign’s origins: “Our followers are strongly of the opinion that new grammar schools will enhance social mobility…” (emphasis added). But evidence counts for more than opinion on matters of fact like whether grammar schools help or hinder social mobility – and unfortunately for supporters of the campaign, selective schools hurt the life chances of children from poorer backgrounds, instead of helping them.
That’s what a large body of reliable evidence from numerous academic studies, and analysis from think tanks across the political spectrum, says – if social mobility is the problem, grammar schools aren’t the solution, as one commentator memorably put it. Whether we look at the social background of children who attend selective schools, their exam results or their future earnings, the evidence is clear – grammar schools don’t ‘act as a motor for social mobility.’
So why do claims like this persist? As Conservative Voice goes on to say: “Our followers are strongly of the opinion that new grammar schools will both enhance social mobility and present parents with choice, both of which lie at the heart of the Conservative Party’s values” (emphasis added). Conservative Voice are entitled to want more grammar schools because they are in favour of parental choice as a matter of values. What they’re not entitled to is their own version of the facts, where grammar schools help social mobility – because all the evidence points the other way.