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Universities, grammar schools and the week that social mobility went askew

The Prime Minister's announcements on grammar schools and university-schools betray the political bind she finds herself in, as well as her incomplete understanding of social mobility. Just like her predecessor.
This article is more than 7 years old

David Morris is the Vice Chancellor's policy adviser at the University of Greenwich and former Deputy Editor of Wonkhe. He writes in a personal capacity.

Back in June, in her first speech from Downing Street, Theresa May announced her intention to lead in the “spirit” of her predecessor, particularly as a “one nation” government concerned with “social justice” that “works for everyone”. The rhetoric was straight out of the Cameron playbook, but by bringing back grammar schools, the new PM has torn up her predecessor’s legacy.

May’s emphasis on social reform as she entered No. 10 is linked to her announcements today about the reintroduction of grammar schools, the relaxation of rules regarding faith schools, and the surprise bombshell that universities will be required to open or sponsor a school in order to charge over £6,000 fees. It is also highly significant that these initiatives have come from Number 10, and not from the Department for Education – Justine Greening has not appeared an enthusiastic advocate thus far.

The new PM is in a bind: she needs to create a policy narrative on which she can deliver success that can counterbalance the almost inevitable negative press she will receive for her handling of Brexit, where it’s heads they win, tails she loses. The success of the economy will go hand-in-hand with this, and she can’t guarantee this will provide much political capital. Hence the Prime Minister has seized upon education and social reform as an area where she can outdo her predecessor by being more radical and more daring.

She is also acutely aware of the size of her Parliamentary majority. Significantly, her announcements this week will be music to the ears of the ‘power behind the throne’, Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee and the inevitable source of any possible backbench rebellion over the Brexit settlement. Brady has been a long-time campaigner for reintroducing grammar schools and claims to believe passionately in social mobility: he resigned from the Tory front bench in 2007 when David Willetts argued against them.

May would not have become Prime Minister (at least so soon) if Brady had decided, as was in his gift, to force her to run against one of the other candidates when Andrea Leadsom announced her withdrawal from the leadership election. May cannot survive as Prime Minister without Brady’s tacit support and goodwill. Her overtures to social justice and social reform are an attempt to ameliorate the allies of Osborne and Cameron by being seen to continue her predecessor’s legacy.

Beyond all this politicking, the implications for higher education policy may prove to be profound.

Name-blind admissions

David Cameron provoked substantial irritation at UCAS HQ late last year when he preemptively announced that universities would be introducing a name-blind admissions process as a step towards his ‘2020 agenda’ to increase BME participation rates in higher education by 20% by 2020, an eye-catching title befitting of his PR instincts. A compromise between the government and the sector has led to UCAS conducting an extensive consultation on the issue, the first report on which was released this week. But it is unclear at present whether his targets are still in place under the May government.

What is clear, however, is that simply eliminating any trace of bias in admissions will not get the government even close to achieving Cameron’s targets. As my analysis from a few months ago showed, there is evidence of some possible bias against black and Asian applicants in up to a fifth of higher education institutions. UCAS has acknowledged this in their report but note that they do not believe that overall the problem is systemic.

Yet even if bias does exist in the system, the numbers of students affected are relatively small. Once again, the government has failed to distinguish between fair access and widening access. Eliminating bias in admissions is a question of fairness for a relatively small number of applicants who might be hard done-by, particularly in some prestigious and continually selective areas such as medicine and dentistry. As UCAS put it:

“If all HEPs [providers] made offers to all groups exactly at the rate expected based on their predicted grades and course applied to (thereby correcting for concerns about unconscious bias), modelling shows that would not make a material difference to the entry rates of underrepresented groups in HE.”

UCAS plans to trial name-blind admissions with a group of universities, but responses to their consultation show that there are many concerns with the practicalities of introducing the system. To my mind, the process is worth a trial, and implementation in full if it proves not to be obstructive.

There is a very real risk that the government could convince itself that it will have ‘solved’ the problem of BME underrepresentation in higher education simply by introducing name-blind admissions. Nonetheless, implementing this reform will be a tick on the Prime Minister’s “making Britain a country that works for everyone” agenda.

Crucially, the government’s approach to name-blind admissions shows parallels with a much bigger development in education and social mobility policy: grammar schools.

Grammar schools return

The reintroduction of grammar schools cements the terms of public discourse about the role of education in ‘social mobility’, now the watchword of modern conservatism and liberal-centrism. The term now dominates in higher education policy discussions and has become an automatic place-holder phrase, something no one can disagree with and that higher education has a duty to enable. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to stress this point on Wonkhe and lament the impact it has on the UK’s education policy, yet somehow it keeps having to be made, such is social mobility’s entrenchment as a ‘common sense’ idea in public life.

Social mobility also appeals because it is believed to be achievable and that once upon a time (roughly between 1950 and 1975) it was a social reality. Conventional wisdom continues to be that social mobility has stalled and that only education can fix the problem. Nostalgia for grammars from the likes of Brady rests in the myth that selection once allowed gifted working class pupils to access the best universities and the best professions, and could so again.

Yet social mobility, at least as it is commonly understood, has never existed in the UK. The authority on this issue is Professor John Goldthorpe of Nuffield College, Oxford, who has shown that while ‘absolute’ social mobility improved in the mid-to-late 20th century, ‘relative’ social mobility (that which most commentators refer to) did not.

The number of people in higher or middle occupations increased because of the larger numbers of these jobs available, such as clerical, public sector and middle-management roles in service sectors, and the reduction in lower or unskilled work in manufacturing sectors. The apparent stalling of social mobility in recent decades has primarily been due to the changing shape of the labour market: a reduction in middle-skilled jobs and the ‘hourglass effect’ that leads to increasing income inequality. The education system has had a limited effect on these changes.

Beyond the errant arguments about grammars and social mobility, almost the entirety of the educational establishment is united in believing that grammar schools are actively harmful to disadvantaged children. There aren’t a great many policy issues that find consensus between the National Union of Teachers, the head of Ofsted, the editor of Schools Week, the Director of the Institute of Education, Teach First, the Chair of the Education Select Committee, the Chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, and the National Association of Head Teachers. Opposition to grammars must be the only thing these groups all agree on.

Simply put, without taking active efforts to ensure that the children of the middle classes end up working on zero-hours contracts at Sports Direct, politicians espousing social mobility are being profoundly disingenuous. The myth of social mobility is made stark when considering the ‘glass floor’ recently highlighted by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. Preventing ‘downward mobility’ will always be a stronger political imperative than ensuring ‘upward mobility’.

Universities to sponsor schools

Also announced this week is the plan to compel universities to open or sponsor a school. The Prime Minister has stated that funds for bursaries should be directed towards this initiative, which will be policed by the Director of Fair Access. To give the idea real teeth, the policy will become part of the access agreement that allows universities to charge more than £6,000, and so the bulk of the sector not already in this space will need to jump in, and soon.

It will be exceptionally difficult for the higher education sector to resist the new requirement. The sector’s protestations to the Department for Education will be worthless, as this policy clearly did not originate there. Frankly, it appears to have originated with very little thought at all. Yet the sector has consistently complained that the schools’ sector is primarily responsible for widening access, and has been under pressure to reach out to working-class communities since the Brexit vote. Like it not, the new policy puts both of these challenges more firmly in the court of universities.

The Prime Minister also believes that universities will be able to share their teaching expertise with schools – yes, the same teaching quality that requires a TEF. Both of these points will no doubt be raised in the consultation on the policy which is now expected soon.

This is a doubling down on the message that universities have increasingly heard for years: it is your responsibility to fix social inequalities through education.

And as anyone in higher education that has already worked with schools knows, either through setting them up or by sponsorship, these relationships take time, energy and real long-term commitment to become valuable for all involved. It is very far from a quick fix, and can not be done via purely bureaucratic means. The strength of this policy, therefore, may be in its ability to drive real change in university strategy, and ultimately change in the wider education landscape. But there’s a very long road ahead for the policy before it bears any fruit, and the Director of Fair Access will have substantive influence over how it is implemented.

Young and Crosland rebuked

What both our former and current Prime Ministers have in common is a flawed and errant understanding of social mobility. Cameron and May can recognise the barriers faced by white working-class boys and black and ethnic minority pupils as ‘relatively’ unjust, but their obsession with (to quote May’s Friday speech) “making Britain the great meritocracy of the world” means they are unwilling to countenance the real ‘absolute’ social mobility required to change it. As is regularly pointed out, their unironic use of the term ‘meritocracy’ is telling.

Paul Goodman, the editor of Conservative Home, gives us an insight into the real thinking behind all this:

“My sense is the flame is set a little lower in one particular way. One view of social mobility is expressed in that image of a man climbing a ladder to the top of society. I think that the new Downing Street’s focus is, rather, on the majority who simply want to get up a single rung – to see their life and their families’ get a little bit better.”

Eliminating bias in university admissions, forcing universities to improve school standards and reintroducing grammar schools may improve the social mobility prospects of some individuals, but none will have an impact on the amount of overall social mobility in society at large. As Goldthorpe puts it:

“The basic source of inequality of educational opportunity lies in the inequality of condition – the inequality in resources of various kinds – that exists among families from different class backgrounds. And it is this inequality of condition that will have to be addressed.”

Real achievements in social mobility can only come from major shifts in the size and shape of the economy and the job market, but this, when compared with tinkering in education, is a lot harder for politicians to affect. Given the inevitable harm that will be done to the economy under May’s watch as she negotiates the perils of Brexit, perhaps this natural politician’s’ instinct to ‘do something’ in the realm of education is understandable.

5 responses to “Universities, grammar schools and the week that social mobility went askew

  1. The limited absolute upward social mobility largely from the upper (skilled) sections of the old industrial working class to the expanding middle class of managers and professionals, which you point out existed from c.1950 – 1975, has been succeeded in this century by general absolute downward social mobility as the class structure has gone pear-shaped (not an hour glass), leaving those in the new respectable working-middle/ middle-working class running up a down-escalator of devalued educational qualifications so as not to fall into a c. 40% ratchetted-up reserve army of the precariously employed. (See my book: ‘Betraying a Generation, How Education Has Failed Young People’, Policy Press 2016.)

  2. The policy of compelling universities to open or sponsor schools needs to be seen in the light of the differentiated nature of English higher education and the associated different motivations for sponsorship. Whilst over half of English universities have taken the initiative to sponsor UTCs, a minority of HEIs have sought to sponsor academies or free schools and the way they have done so reflects the differentiated nature of the sector. Prestigious universities such as Birmingham and UCL are sponsoring single free schools with superlative facilities which can be seen as building on, and contributing to the institutional ‘brand’. Less prestigious post-92 institutions are more often characterised by the sponsoring of numerous and different types of academies which may suggest a concern with developing revenue streams.
    There is no evidence that universities are any better at running schools than Local Authorities or other types of sponsors but in a system in which all universities feel compelled to sponsor schools the different reputations of HEIs may serve to confirm and entrench differentiation between schools. Will the green paper suggest that it is prestigious universities (such as the Russell Group) that should should use the free school policy to create grammar schools?

  3. A side issue in your article maybe but fair access – or the lack of it – is a massive issue at elite universities.

    UCAS aren’t an impartial player on this question – they’re sector-led and chaired by a Russell Group Vice Chancellor. I therefore find it very difficult to trust their analysis, especially given their determination to stop any independent academics accessing their data to do their own analysis. For example, the UCAS analysis you cite made lots of odd methodological choices – like not using regression analysis, excluding around a third of Russell Group applicants from the analysis because they applied to Oxford or Cambridge and using predicted grades rather than actual grades.

    The work of academics like Vikki Boliver at Durham University as well as organisations like the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission shows there’s a big problem in access to elite universities.

    I agree name blind applications will not address the problem: the issue is not direct discrimination based on application forms (and in any case the evidence on name blind job applications suggests it’s counter-productive). It’s a gimmicky fix from politicians who want to be seen to be doing something without actually doing the hard work to tackle the problem at hand.

  4. Perhaps a trite contribution, but nonetheless here goes: I come from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire (a good introduction to many educational topics) and one thing stands out – since Wheelwright Grammar School went comprehensive, the town hasn’t produced a single person of national renown outside of sport.

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