Theresa May seems to have been dreamily reminiscing about her childhood in an Oxfordshire vicarage. She wants to open new grammar schools in order to create a Great Meritocracy. It may be a stage-of-life thing. I find it takes very little provocation to make me think about my youth. Simon Wessely writes an entertaining blog on the Royal College of Psychiatrists website. This week he mentioned in passing that as a medical student he attended a performance by Roy Chubby Brown. He said that Brown made Jim Davidson and Bernard Manning look like Marcel Proust. Jim Davidson, old-school stand-up comedian, has an unenviable reputation as a celebrity who is confused about the difference between bigotry and humour. Funnily enough, he lived around the corner from me in the 1960s. We attended the same primary school. Although he was a little older, I hung about with him intermittently until my family eventually moved. He once told me that he thought that Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ was too long and that some of the prose towards the end was “a bit shit”. He advised me not to try to read it in the original French.
Ok, it is obvious that I made up the Proust thing. The alternative comedian and Radio 4 regular Arthur Smith also went to the same primary school. If I had told the Proust story about him, it would have been plausible. I think he may have cracked Proust-related jokes now and again when we walked home from our grammar school in Greenwich. It was, after all, the heyday of Monty Python, who unwittingly encouraged grammar school kids to make surreal jokes about Cicero, Wittgenstein and underwater cheese shops.
Jim Davidson did not walk home with us because he went to a secondary modern in Charlton. So, there we have it, evidence in support of Theresa May’s assertions about the power of grammar schools to promote social mobility and to improve the education of working class people. If the Inner London Education Authority had provided more grammar school places, Jim Davidson might have grown up to be a different sort of comedian, making jokes about his own latent sexism, urging the electorate to vote Remain on Twitter and making unfavourable comparisons between Brexit and the Reformation. But Jim Davidson is almost certainly a lot richer and more famous than Arthur Smith, so perhaps he wins the social mobility prize after all. Perhaps it was not the school that made the difference.
Social mobility was a transient feature of British society during the huge economic and cultural change that followed the Second World War. There was a major adjustment in the entire character of the work force and the relationship between the state and the population. Hundreds of thousands of people, including most of my family and friends, found themselves in an entirely different position to their forebears. We were rocketed into the educated middle class. At all times, there has been small number of individuals who through good luck, ability or criminality transform their circumstances, but the post-war period stands out as an exceptional time when the offspring of workers paid weekly wages became employees paid monthly salaries in large numbers. Throughout that period, grammar schools were being turned into comprehensive schools. Far from promoting social mobility, grammar schools inhibited it. If some pupils are selected at 11 years of age, others must be rejected. Grammar schools and secondary modern schools are inseparable. Oddly enough, no one seems to want new secondary modern schools to open, but where selection is given free rein, non-selective schools are bound to suffer.
My children went to our local comprehensive school. The school often irritated me, and the education it provided was by no means perfect. I was criticised by some friends and colleagues for failing to have our children privately educated. I was accused of harming their future by indulging my ideological scruples. Today my offspring are all pursuing their ambitions in possession of good academic qualifications. When I point this out to my former critics, the response is an eye rolling ‘Ah! But…’ The thing is, it turns out, that they were bound to do well, because they were middle class kids growing up in a nice area with well-educated parents. It seems that even people who pay for their children’s education know that the effect of the type of school is overwhelmed by more powerful socio-cultural background factors.
There are many Tory MPs who oppose the expansion of grammar schools, and who argue that they cannot improve social mobility. It is hard to believe that the promotion of a Great Meritocracy is an authentic motivation behind the policy. Theresa May apparently attended a grammar school at exactly the same time as me (although according to Wikipedia, she also attended a comprehensive and a private school, so she got about a bit). Her background seems to have been upper middle class, high Church and high Tory. She went to Oxford University and then straight to a job in the Bank of England. That looks to me like a CV of enduring privilege rather of social mobility.
Selective education helps parents to avoid the situation where their children have to mix with those from the next social group down. It is less about social mobility and more about social segregation. British society is more stratified now than it has been for 100 years. Children attend socially homogenous schools and go on to Universities which are themselves strictly rank ordered. Pupils go to school with people just like them, they go on to similarly stratified Universities and they work in jobs where everyone comes from similar backgrounds. New grammar schools would simply subsidise those Conservative voting parents who aspire to the bottom end of the private education market.
We know how to improve social mobility. Selective education, like austerity and Brexit, is counter-productive. The main factor that would facilitate social mobility is reduction of income inequality. The UK has relatively high levels of income inequality, a legacy of the Thatcher years that no Government of either party has seriously tried to correct. Teachers can make a difference too and they are especially important to children who struggle. I owe a great deal to some really good teachers, who helped me to overcome a variety of educational and behavioural difficulties. We need an egalitarian educational system that supports teachers to help children to realise their potential, not a system that writes off many children at 11 years old. Mrs May should stop dreaming of recreating an imagined past, because in doing so she is likely to create an even more unequal and unstable future.