Grammar Schools are back in the news again, as the Conservatives pledge £50 million in funding to expand established Grammars and build satellite schools. According to Damien Hinds, this money is supposed to help "give children of all backgrounds access to a world-class education". But what if funding more Grammar School places will actually just widen social inequality, rather than promote social mobility?
I can speak from experience on this matter: I grew up in Southend on Sea, Essex, one of the last strongholds of the selective Grammar Schools. In fact, I went to a Grammar School aged 11-16, and remember the lengths some of my friends' parents went to in ensuring their child passed the dreaded 11-plus test. Growing up, I had difficulty reconciling the advantage I gained from going to this school with the disadvantage the existence of the Grammar system causes for other pupils in the borough. Studies show that, in areas with Grammar Schools, the students who don't get in are worse off than in areas without Grammars.
As a case study, I've compared some of the statistics for two schools in the area that are less than 0.1 miles away from each other - Southend High School for Girls, an Academy-run Grammar School, and my alma mater; and Southchurch High School, formerly known as Futures Community College, the comprehensive school down the road.
Using data freely available online from the Compare School Performance Service and the Schools Financial Benchmarking Service (which both still record the name of Southchurch High School as Futures Community College), we can compare the difference in pupil attainment and funding.
English and Maths GCSEs - the exams taken at 16 years old in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, similar in remit to the Scottish National Qualifications - are a common minimum requirement for entry level jobs and further education. They also ensure that pupils have the literacy and numeracy they'll need in their day-to-day lives. Therefore, the pass rate makes a good benchmark for comparison: have the schools set their pupils up for life? According to the BBC, 'Grade 5 or above' is a "strong pass", or C+ grade, and a 'Grade 4 or above' is a 'standard pass', or C-. How did pupils in these schools do last year?
In 2016/17, 100% of the Grammar School girls attained at least the standard pass or above. By comparison, in Southchurch High School, one quarter achieved the strong pass, and less than half achieved the standard pass.
The situation worsens when we narrow the data down to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Compare School Performance Service defines disadvantaged pupils as follows:
"Disadvantaged pupils are those who were eligible for free school meals at any time during the last 6 years and children looked after (in the care of the local authority for a day or more or who have been adopted from care)."
We can see from the stats above that there were only 8 pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the Grammar School at Key Stage 4 in the 2016/7 year, compared to the 75 pupils in Southchurch High School - 5% and 54% of the year group, respectively. There goes Damnien Hinds' arguments about Grammar Schools giving children from all backgrounds access to a world-class education: only 5% of pupils from this year group are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and their number is a mere 10% of the total of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the same year group at the Comprehensive school 0.1 miles down the road.
In addition to this, let's look at those GCSE pass rates. All 8 of those pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the Grammar School got a strong pass or above in their Maths and English GCSEs. This is compared with a shockingly low 20% getting the strong pass in the Comprehensive, and only 36% getting a standard pass.
Not only are there ten times as many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the comprehensive school, only a fifth of them are getting a strong pass or above in their English and Maths GCSE exams, 30% below the national average.
Let's also compare the grant funding these schools receive:
The Grammar School - the school whose disadvantaged pupils already reach an 100% standard pass rate for English and Maths GCSEs - receives nearly £2 million more in grant funding than the Comprehensive, which has only a 36% standard pass rate for disadvantaged pupils.
What all this means is that the mere 0.1 mile difference between these schools translates to a £2 million difference in funding and a huge difference in the pass rate for the English and Maths GCSEs.
Damien Hinds' £50 million would be better spent funding State Comprehensive schools like Southchurch High School, bringing up attainment at GCSE level for all pupils, including those pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who most need the support to succeed. Every school in the UK should provide an education that's fit for purpose, providing pupils with an education that meets their needs and prepares them for further education, the workplace, and the rest of their lives. Funding more Grammar School places instead of investing in State Comprehensive Schools will only widen the pass gap - and, as a result, the social inequality gap - between the two.