Opponents of grammar schools have truth on their side, but truth alone won’t win the battle of ideas

The facts show the grammar/secondary modern school system doesn't work. But facts rarely persuade people.

Duncan Exley
8 August 2016
Secondary Modern school.jpg

Great Stone Road Secondary Modern School c.1969. Image: Dave Croker

Grammar schools are part of a Great British story. In World War II, the people had proven themselves heroes, on the battlefield and the home front, from the Admirals to the squaddies to the land girls; against the odds, against the evil of fascism. After the war, we built a land fit for heroes; where people would get the healthcare, housing, jobs and education they deserved. Grammar schools would allow talented, hard-working kids to get the best education, whatever their family circumstances; they allowed Brits to be like Britain: a heroic underdog who comes out on top.

And sure enough, as the number of grammar schools expanded, the number of working class kids who went on to get respectable white-collar jobs increased, and when the grammar schools were phased out, that upward mobility ground to a halt.

If you are reading this article, it’s very likely that you are politically progressive, and disagree with the story I’ve just told. It’s very likely that over the last couple of days you felt some mixture of anger and despair at the news that the government is considering bringing back grammar schools, talking about “social mobility and making sure that people have the opportunity to capitalise on all of their talents”.

If you object to grammar schools, you have the facts on your side. We don’t need grammars to improve the prospects of bright-but-poor kids; because their prospects can be improved by comprehensives and academies; because hardly any poorer kids get the chance to go to a grammar in the first place (99% of grammar schools show a bias against poorer pupils); because children in selective systems who don’t get into grammar schools do worse than their equivalents in comprehensive systems; because the post-war increase in social mobility was caused by an increase in the number of white-collar jobs, which grammar schools coincided with but didn’t cause.

But there’s a problem: telling these facts to the advocates of grammar schools doesn’t change their minds. Over the last few months, as part of the research for a book I’m writing about social mobility, I’ve been doing an experiment: every time I find someone on Twitter saying that bringing back grammar schools would improve social mobility (which is often), I reply to them, with a non-confrontational message attaching research findings. The most common responses are to give an anecdote about someone who benefited from a grammar school education (the “Uncle Steve” response) or to say that the research was conducted by people with a “left-wing bias” (ignoring the Conservatives who oppose grammar schools). Unsurprisingly, no-one has responded to me by saying “thank you, having seen the facts, I have now changed my mind”. These people are not out-of-step with popular opinion: 64% of Brits agree that “Grammar schools increase social mobility by giving those from less wealthy backgrounds access to better education” against only 16% that disagree.

The response to my fact-based response to grammar schools’ advocates is entirely in line with research conducted by psychologists and neurologists showing that human brains reject facts they don’t like, by triggering an emotional response rather than an intellectual response. But progressives persist in relying on facts and ‘myth-busters’. The stories that people tell to justify grammar schools are powerful, because they appeal to people’s values and trigger an emotional response to a triumph-of-the-underdog story, in a way statistics never can.

Progressives have the best facts, but no-one will accept them unless we also have the best stories. I don’t claim to have a whole perfect story on selective vs non-selective schooling, but I will suggest some elements of it:

Firstly, we have to stop using our opponents’ words, (words I have used until now). The vast majority of kids who did the eleven-plus exam didn’t get to grammar school; so instead of talking about the “grammar school system”, we should use more truthful terms like the “11-plus system” or the “secondary-modern system”. Also, debating whether the secondary-modern system helps or hinders ‘poor children’ doesn’t help, because hardly anyone thinks of themselves as poor (including people who are) and would therefore be more engaged in the debate if we pointed out that the vast majority of middle-income children would lose out.

But changing the terminology isn’t enough. We need an inspiring story to counteract the rags-to-riches inspirationals peddled by those who would bring back the secondary-modern system. We can tell a tale of villains (those who spend more money than the rest of us can afford to ‘play the system’, to make sure their kids get a selective education at taxpayers’ expense) and heroes (the headteachers – preferably outside ‘that London’ who have raised performance overall, not just for a lucky few). We can tell our own Great British story, of national pride in choosing fair opportunity over entrenched privilege.

While the cheerleaders for the secondary-modern system tell their Great British story, progressives shy away from national pride; but they shouldn’t, especially when the medals from Rio come rolling in. We can tell a story that appeals to people who identify with “Olympic Spirit”, or “British Values” as well as those who identify with “Social Justice”: the scandal of the 11-plus, a race where the privileged kids start 100 metres ahead.

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