30 November 2020

John Bercow’s grammar schools rant makes no sense

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One might have hoped that the end of his Speakership might have been the last we heard of John Bercow. Hoped, but not expected. No man as evidently in love with the limelight as he was likely to step off the national stage if he could help it.

In a recent article for the Guardian, the former MP for Buckingham offered the next phase in his very public journey from right to left when he called for the abolition of every remaining grammar school.

One can easily see why the comprehensive movement, which has invited him to speak at an upcoming conference, might consider Bercow a useful convert. Until recently he represented one of the small number of constituencies fortunate enough to have maintained educational selection. If there are any harrowing front-line stories to tell, surely he can tell them.

Yet his piece better serves as an artefact of how abstract and deeply ideological – not to mention selectively-informed – the case for comprehensives really is.

Before going any further, I should declare that I was lucky enough to attend a Buckinghamshire grammar school myself. I didn’t grow up there, but was one of the 25 to 30% of selective pupils Bercow cites as coming from outside the county. I would very probably not be where I am today without that opportunity.

There is a gaping hole at the heart of Bercow’s piece, and it is this: if the position of grammar schools in his constituency really is akin to ‘apartheid’, as he says, why did such a vanishingly small number of his constituents oppose it?

In tones of condescending bafflement, he confesses that in the 22 years he represented Buckingham in Parliament he received only a handful of letters protesting against the system “and was lobbied directly only once, by two Labour supporters who did not have children”. This even though, if his figures are correct, “only 25% of any cohort of children will pass the 11-plus”.

Bercow offers no explanation for this, not even the ‘false consciousness’-style rationalisation so often favoured by progressives when the objects of their labours are ideologically disobliging, and it is extremely telling that despite all those years at the coal face as an MP he can add nothing to the case against grammar schools than the same abstract figures that anyone could get from the available data.

So too is the fact that his fondness for statistics starts to wane once he starts turning his attention to the comprehensive alternative. He does take the time to tell us that:

“In data published by the DfE in 2015, only 32.2% of free school meals children in Bucks obtained five or more GCSEs at grade C or above (the grading system at the time) while 71.4% of non-FSM children achieved the same. That is a gap of 39.2 percentage points. Compare that with neighbouring Luton, where the difference was only 13%.”

Sounds ominous. But he doesn’t actually tell us how Luton closes that gap. Surely he has not forgotten so much from his time on the right that he has forgotten Margaret Thatcher’s warning against levelling down by fixating on ‘the gap’ instead of the outcome?

A glance at the actual data (table LA9) explains his reticence. Yes, the percentage of disadvantaged pupils achieving 5+ A*-C grades including English & Maths GCSEs in Luton is higher, at 43.1% versus 35.5%. But attainment for “all other pupils” is also well down at 58.4%, versus 74.5% in Buckinghamshire. So of that 26.2 point closure of the gap, 7.6 points comes from lifting up the disadvantaged and 17.1 points comes from dragging down the rest.

If you take into account how many pupils fall into each category in each area, it gets even worse. Luton has 865 ‘disadvantaged pupils’ and 1,605 ‘all other pupils’. In Buckinghamshire it’s 812 of the former and 4,924 of the latter. So if we were to apply Luton’s ‘more equitable’ outcomes to Buckinghamshire, it would on average mean a 17-point fall in the outcomes of just under 86% of pupils.

Truly, the opposition of local parents to tearing up the grammar system is a mystery.

Perhaps that’s why Bercow changes tack. Having made the case against grammar schools using general statistics and without drawing any substantive evidence from his personal experience as an MP, his case for comprehensives abandons statistics altogether in favour of personal anecdotes about the excellent one his children attend. In so doing, he once again perfectly captures the problem with the comprehensive movement.

Nobody denies that there are excellent comprehensive schools. Notwithstanding the free schools and academies which have blossomed under the past decade and more of education reform, there are also many comprehensives which either defended an academic ethos against successive progressive assaults or have rebuilt them since.

But there are also lots of underperforming comprehensive schools – and there were far more before the advent of academies and free schools, which advocates of comprehensives often opposed (see Bercow’s dig at Michael Gove). There can be vast differences between quite different types of school under the ‘comprehensive’ system, and access to the better ones is by no means as equitable as Bercow presents it.

It is no secret that being in the catchment area of a good local school can substantially increase the price of a house. The ‘postcode lottery’ is itself a form of selection. Indeed, one might argue that by buying their way into a good catchment area, many middle-class parents are simply doing what their parents’ generation did when private school fees were lower and more widely affordable. They are simply paying the fees to mortgage lenders instead.

Formally acknowledging the existence of different types of school gives parents the chance to make better-informed decisions about where is best for their children – even if that school is in a neighbouring town or county, as mine was. And whether their pupils go grammar or private, they at minimum have to acknowledge the advantages this involves.

The comprehensive system, on the other hand, allows parents to buy their way into an outstanding school whilst convincing themselves that they’re just using the same system as everyone else. Which is why well-to-do activists can skate over the cold statistical truth of comprehensive performance with such confidence – and ordinary parents cannot.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.