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Chris McGovern: Our bright kids from poor areas need grammar schools to give them a real chance in life


Across the broad, socio-economic spectrum in Britain, it is children living in relative poverty that suffer most under our current school system. The demise of grammar schools, the dumbing down of the curriculum, the dilution of rigour in public exams, were all intended to ‘level the playing field’. The intention was more fairly to distribute educational opportunity; not least to the underprivileged.

A new study from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, however, shows that these changes have achieved the opposite of what was intended. Able children from poor families are 35 per cent less likely to become high earners than children of less ability who come from well off families.

Rather than facing up fully to the reality of their own findings – that too many sub-standard primary schools and ‘bog standard’ comprehensives are letting down their pupils – the report inclines to place the blame elsewhere. Middle class parents and private schools are, it seems, culpable and this is highlighted in the report’s title: Downward mobility, opportunity hoarding and the ‘glass’ floor.

It seems that middle class parents, especially if they were well educated themselves and they can afford private school fees, are giving their offspring an unfair ‘leg up’ in life. “The fact that middle class families are successful in hoarding the best opportunities in the education system and in the labour market is a real barrier to the upward social mobility of less advantaged children,” claims Dr Abigail McKnight, the report’s author.

She discerns a metaphorical “glass floor” based on ‘soft’ social and interpersonal skills that protects and favours less talented middle class kids from the potential competition provided by able youngsters from lower down the social scale. In turn, too many of these gifted children from underprivileged backgrounds are thwarted by a “glass ceiling” that limits their access to the best jobs.

There is nothing new, of course, about the ‘old school tie’ and the importance of ‘who you know’ rather than ‘what you know’. This particular ailment has long been a barrier to Britain realising the full potential of its people and to the creation of a meritocracy. The future of our economy and of our social wellbeing depends on utilising fully the talents of our people.

Commission chairman Alan Milburn is right to describe the divide revealed by the report as a “social scandal”. However, he understates the case. The country’s future depends on creating a true meritocracy. He wants the Government to “make its core mission the levelling of the playing field so that every child in the country has an equal opportunity to go as far as their abilities can take them.” Right again! What he does not see, however, is that if children are to maximise their ability they will need to be educated in line with that ability. This means academic schools for academic children and equally prestigious vocational schools for youngsters whose talents are more practical.

The creation of thousands of new grammar schools, especially in deprived areas, alongside high quality vocational schools, would be the most effective step towards achieving the social justice and equality sought by Mr Milburn and his report.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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