Regional inequalities are hindering social mobility
Covid has exacerbated the disparities in our education system, and almost two years on since the start of the pandemic, it appears that support continues to be given in the wrong places. The National Tutoring catch-up programme has been a resounding failure, with only 5% of the target number of pupils having been enrolled so far. On the other hand, a recent Freedom of Information request has revealed that grammar schools in Kent are taking significant numbers of pupils that have not passed the 11-Plus, thereby giving them an unfair advantage.
Grammar schools have been allowed to expand but the number of students taking — and passing — the 11-Plus has failed to keep pace, and therefore more and more places are being given on appeals. For example, in the Herne Bay area, around 10% of grammar school places are now given through appeals, whilst across the county 35% of 11-Plus applicants go to grammar schools, despite the target being 25%.
There is an argument that, aside from the knock-on effects on neighbouring comprehensives, this may be a good thing. Grammar schools tend to get excellent results; in The Times’ Parent Power 2022 school rankings, all of the top 20 state secondary schools are grammar schools, and 16 of these are based in London and the South East. In theory that means that the more students that get the opportunity to go to a high-achieving school, the better.
However, there is also an argument that allowing grammar schools to expand, but not allowing new grammar schools to be built, only exacerbates regional inconsistencies. Kent is already an anomaly in many respects. It has 35 selective schools, by far the most of any area in England; the next largest is Lincolnshire, with 15.
By contrast, there is not a single grammar school in the whole of East Anglia (Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire), nor in Oxfordshire, Somerset, Northumberland or Durham. Kent is also a very affluent area. The average price of a house in Sevenoaks is over £700,000, with an average household income of £60,000. Grammar schools are often accused of taking disproportionately high numbers of wealthy pupils, and it’s not hard to see why when you look at house prices: in Buckinghamshire, where there are 13 grammar schools, almost 9% of houses sold last year went for over £1 million.
Middle-class families in areas such as Tunbridge Wells and Cranbook will not only be able to afford the costs of living near a good grammar school, but they will also be able to fund private tuition to coach their children through the 11-Plus. If they fail, they will also know how to play the appeals system, and grammar schools, desperate to get more funding through expansion, will give more and more places based on money rather than merit. Many schools are already lowering the pass mark to fill the growing number of places. This not only makes a mockery of the 11-Plus exams (which are contentious enough already), but it also highlights the broken postcode lottery of our education system.
Blackpool, for example, is regularly listed as one of the most deprived areas in the country, but the nearest grammar school is just under an hour drive away. Colchester in Essex, a smaller and much wealthier town, has two, while Southend-on-Sea, which has a similar population to Blackpool, has four — the same number as the whole of Lancashire, the second most populous county in England.
If the government is serious about ‘levelling up’ then it either needs to limit the expansion of existing grammar schools, or consider allowing the introduction of new ones. Our current system does nothing for social mobility whilst grammar schools are so concentrated in affluent areas. The expansion policy may allow grammar schools to appear like they are opening the door, but the reality is that the bright, disadvantaged students who would benefit from them the most are still being shut out.