Theresa May’s plans for a new generation of grammar schools have been met with staunch cross-party opposition. Criticism has even come from senior members of her own party. But there is one important point that has been largely ignored: how the plans will affect racial inequality in education, and indeed society.
The argument for the reintroduction of grammar schools hinges on the idea of meritocracy, but this denies the ways race and other social factors such as class impact education and grammar school admissions. Black students are already at a disadvantage in our education system, and May’s plans will worsen this.
By the time black students reach the end of primary school, they have already faced a litany of barriers that would prevent them from getting the grades to enter grammar schools: race and class biases in examinations, harmfully low teacher expectations and a whitewashed curriculum that refuses to recognise Britain’s colonial past, to name a few.
Race affects educational outcomes way before students would be expected to take the dreaded 11-plus exams. According to Department for Education statistics on SATs exams, the proportion of black students (including those designated as mixed white and black Caribbean) who achieve level 5 or above in the key areas of reading, writing and mathematics is notably below that of their white peers and the “all pupil” average.
The general consensus is that students looking to pass the grammar school entrance exam should be at level 5 (often high level 5) in their SATs exams. A disproportionate number of black students, then, are excluded from grammar school entry. The expansion of grammar schools could see the widening of already troubling racial disparities.
‘Winners’ and ‘losers’
Professor David Gillborn argues that the British education system is not in fact designed to be meritocratic but to reproduce the racial attainment gap. Given the fundamental role education plays in structuring employment, the economy and society at large, the maintenance of the attainment gap means continued racial inequality. And contrary to May’s rhetoric, evidence suggests that the reintroduction of grammar schools will further entrench the education system’s role in this.
Helen Barnard of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation notes that “[t]here are three times as many “losers” in a grammar school system as there are “winners”. The “losers” are disproportionately poorer than the “winners”. We might reasonably add that those losers will be disproportionately black. (Indeed, research from the Education Policy Institute finds that those of black heritage – including black mixed-race – are under-represented in selective schools.)
Being more likely to live in deprived areas means that black students will also suffer more harshly from the recent wave of Conservative funding cuts to our schools. On top of this, given the structural racism that impacts on employment and wealth, these families, unlike their white middle-class counterparts, are often without the economic capital to pay for the private tuition that coaches so many through grammar school entry exams.
So what should we be looking for instead? In stark contrast to the Conservatives, the Labour party has pledged to invest £25bn in a new National Education Service “open to all”. This would see a reversal of the school funding cuts, as well as a reduction in class sizes. Given the links between nutrition and attainment, the promise of free school meals for all primary school pupils could be of real benefit to those black children within less wealthy communities.
Jeremy Corbyn has also spoken about the need for a school curriculum that reflects the true impact of colonialism. My own research looking at the schooling experiences of young black mixed-race men – which backs up other research before it – has found that such curricular changes can help to engage racially minoritised students. In these times of rising racism, xenophobia, and intolerance, a truer understanding of Britain’s colonial legacy is vital.
Of course, there needs to be much more targeted anti-racist work in education from all political parties, and any government would have a lot of work to do. Our politicians must listen to researchers, campaigners, black parents and communities.
The current system has many characteristics that stop black students achieving, but perhaps none are quite as damning as the plans to reintroduce grammar schools at large. If May wants to strengthen our school system, she might start by looking to improve the conditions in our failing schools rather than pursuing an unhelpful vanity project.
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