Grammar schools are pointless when millions of children are still living in poverty

Theresa May argues in favour of grammar schools (having attended one herself) that it’s the government’s role to encourage aspiration and academic excellence in education. There’s nothing wrong with that, but to ignore the context of aspiration and achievement amongst lower income pupils is naive.

There are over three and a half million children living in poverty in the UK and studies show that one in five parents is struggling to feed their children, with no signs of this trend dissipating and every indication things will get worse. 

Learning and academic success isn’t just about the classroom. If you are cold and hungry at home, it’s much harder to complete your homework, you’ll be tired in class and you are more likely to be reprimanded by teachers for not paying attention, which doesn’t do much to fuel enthusiasm. 

It’s hard to have aspirations when you are in danger of being made homeless or are malnourished because the only hot food you eat is during term-time when you qualify for free school meals, and applying to university seems a million miles away when you come from a poor background and are face with the prospect of getting £50,000 into debt with no guarantees of a job at the end of it.

Success at school is down to a number of factors: dedicated teachers who motivate, inspire and nurture; facilities and teaching methods to gain the academic and creative skills needed for the world today and tomorrow; and a positive environment, culture and peer experience that is inclusive both in and outside the classroom. Arguably if you are from a poorer background it is more difficult to harness these things. This impacts motivation and capacity to learn, even amongst the brightest of pupils. The Institute of Fiscal Studies have found that over a fifth of pupils entering grammar schools have come from non-state primaries, which alludes to middle class families sending their children to private primaries and getting “secondary education on the cheap”.

Theresa May’s awkward school visit

What the study didn’t expand upon was the intangible cultural connotations that come as a child from a poor background attending a grammar school, as I discussed with former grammar school pupil Lord Neil Kinnock on a train during the 2015 General Election campaign. It’s tough fitting in as a poor kid in grammar school when predominately many of your fellow peers are from middle class backgrounds. Snobbiness exists and you are often judged, not by who you are but by what your parents do. Extra-curricular activities and school trips are unaffordable and you feel isolated from missing out on these experiences.

Being a poor kid at grammar school made me incredibly socially aware, in a way that I never felt when I attended a secondary modern. I probably first identified as being a socialist whilst at grammar school, although probably on a subliminal level. 

In order to be aspirational you need to have your basic survival covered, everything else is secondary and no amount of new grammar schools and forcing of selective schools to take pupils from poorer backgrounds is going to resolve this. There needs to be a holistic approach to eliminating poverty and the expansion of grammar schools is not the answer.

Successful educational attainment and social mobility is just part of the picture, and school experience is just a component. Until we consider it in relation to other areas and provide solutions that genuinely help and are not generated by meaningless statistics that suit a divisive government agenda, social mobility will not improve and getting into a grammar school will remain the least of poorer children’s problems.

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