Ben Lowry: Grammar schools for all their faults are the best vehicle for social mobility

On page 20 of Saturday's print edition of the News Letter, you will see some of a select number of published tweets that we reprint every day to give readers a taste of huge range of things that people are saying on social media.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 10th September 2016, 7:02 pm
Updated Thursday, 15th September 2016, 4:24 pm
While grammar schools help some people up, some other people will fall down
While grammar schools help some people up, some other people will fall down

On this occasion the contributor says that anyone who states that they believe in social mobility should then be asked if they also believe in downward social mobility.

It is at first glance a clever put down of one of the often cited arguments for grammar schools – that of increased social mobility. Such reasoning is much debated at the moment amid controversy over academic selection.

‘So if you are so keen on people going up,’ the aforementioned tweet invites us to ponder, ‘are you aware it means people dropping down the scale too?’

Theresa May is pro grammars

But it isn’t such a clever observation, because belief in social mobility does indeed mean accepting that some people fall as well rise.

It must mean this, unless you believe in a society in which everyone is rigidly equal, where there is no movement up or down.

The key examples from modern history of attempts to achieve equal societies were in countries that pursued communism. Those experiments either ended in savage repression and disaster (as in the Soviet Union) or in the quiet jettisoning of any equality goal (as in nations that are nominally still communist such as China and Vietnam).

Even when those countries tried to impose the equality ideal they had a large ruling and administrative class that had privileges over the masses, and so were not equal. George Orwell satirised this as early as 1945 in Animal Farm.

Theresa May is pro grammars

The most successful societies on Earth have typically been those in which inequality is managed and reduced to ensure that the most affluent individuals and businesses pay to help pull up the least affluent citizens, but in which high earners still have incentive to earn (even Sweden cut top income tax rates from around 70% to nearer 50%).

When there is inequality, the most important moral goal for policy makers is that no-one drops below a certain standard of living.

Another goal is that inequality does not reach a level where the stability of society is at risk (as some commentators fear it is now, famously including the French economist Thomas Piketty).

A further aim in an unequal society is that there is the potential for upward movement for everyone.

Grammar schools in the UK were the best vehicle for that movement ever seen in a society that was and is deeply riven by class (see below).

A necessary component of social mobility is that when a certain number of people rise up, roughly the same number of people fall down.

I am familiar with this because I have seen so much of it, growing up in north Down and attending school in east Belfast.

I know scores of people born into privileged backgrounds who have fallen down the social scale markedly in terms of their income compared to their parents or in terms of the social classification of their careers compared to their parents.

If someone is born into a family that is at the top of the National Readership Survey social grades (ie social class A, B, C1, C2, D, E) there is a very high chance, bordering on a probability, that they will fall down a grade or even two.

Indeed I am one of those people – the sort of journalism that I have done over the years would by have been classified by NRS as social class C1 or B, which is graded lower than the work of my parents, who were doctors.

I knew 20 years ago that I would struggle to recreate the lifestyle in which I was fortunate to grow up.

This is as it should be. When I was getting out of my bed at midday in the end of my teens, medical students were in lectures at 9am. They are as highly trained as any professional and all well-run societies reward their doctors for their skills and learning and for the key role that they play in the community.

The journalist Charles Moore, who is 15 years older than me and has had 15 years longer to observe it, has witnessed downward social mobility from an even more stark perspective: Eton.

He attended it – arguably the most privileged school on Earth – and has written about watching the vast difference in the life paths of his contemporaries, some of them falling “further and further behind” others over the decades.

People who are outside privileged environments such as public school often wrongly perceive them to be arenas in which everyone is scratching each other’s back. They don’t see the rivalries and the speed with which people can fall out of such circles.

An old Etonian who has a job that has provided an average income of £30,000 a year (which is above the average wage but modest by the standards of Etonian parents) will within 20 years have earned £1 million less than a contemporary who has averaged £80,000 a year in another line of work.

Over a career the income differential between some contemporaries might be many times greater than that amount.

Even in top public schools, few pupils come into inheritances that come anywhere near to closing such gaps.

I have seen the reverse too. It is 24 years since I finished a summer as a porter at Belfast City Hospital, where I recall the pride of some porters (NRS grade D) whose children were at university, including the father of a medical student.

Some of us privileged kids had to fall down to make room for those deserving arrivals in the professional class.

• Comprehensives increased grip of public schools

If you are a determined opponent of academic selection you will not accept the line that I have written above about grammar schools improving social mobility.

Academic careers have been spent slogging back and forth trying to prove or disprove that point via statistics.

But to me and many other observers or commentators or politicians, ranging from the DUP education minister Peter Weir to the Tory prime minister Theresa May to the Labour MP Kate Hoey, what we have seen with our eyes is plain:

Comprehensives in Great Britain led to a decline in overall academic standards and held back the brightest and best kids from modest backgrounds, and so increased the ruling grip of the tiny minority of people who had attended private schools, which maintained traditional standards.

The opponents of grammars point with justification to the small number of pupils from very poor backgrounds who get to grammar schools.

But the reasons for that are complex, including varied cultural attitudes to education. Without grammars the position gets even worse, so that there is almost no mobility.

Selective schools such as Grosvenor in east Belfast or St Mary’s in the west of the city still provide a step-up to significant numbers of working class kids that was taken away in England when it abolished most of its grammar schools.

There is no doubt that failure to get a grammar school place is very painful for some children (although others prefer to go to a secondary).

But there is pain coming in any event in so many aspects of life for so many reasons and in so many spheres – I recall a depressing New York Times report on an academic study of adolescent schoolgirls, which noted how cruel they could be to one another as they began to compete for the most sought after boys.

The comprehensive solution does delay selection at 11 to later in life (such as at university) but it cannot abolish ultimate selection and in the meantime the delay does harm to education in general.

It creates its own cruelties, such as the gifted kid trapped in a setting far below their ability. I know a man who describes his background as working class whose child was so far ahead of the other children at primary school as to be unhappy there, before blossoming at one of Northern Ireland’s fine grammar schools and then Oxbridge.

Our secondary schools should be happy places with outstanding facilities but a different focus and pace to the grammars.

•Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor