Raphael: The great British education divide

Therese Raphael

David Cameron’s political career arguably came to an end this week because of Britain’s longest-running policy debate. Not over leaving Europe, but over education.

When he resigned as prime minister after the Brexit referendum in June, Cameron pledged to keep his parliamentary seat until 2020. On Monday, he decided he’d had enough and many concluded that the timing of his decision was no accident.

Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, had just announced that Britain should increase the number of academically selective state-run secondary schools, dubbed “grammar schools” for their 16th-century origins as places for instruction in Greek and Latin grammar.

Cameron had opposed expanding grammar schools, so May’s changes put him in an awkward position. If he supported her he would be repudiating his own education policy. A vote against her would undermine his successor going into a contentious Conservative Party conference in October.

The policy change weighs heavily in Britain because it involves notions of class and debates over inequality and social mobility. By touting selective schools, May reopened national divisions that run deep. Labour opposition to the reforms has been fierce. And Cameron may be gone, but plenty of his allies in Parliament are ready to challenge May’s vision.

Egalitarians oppose grammar schools on the grounds that they widen inequality by rewarding the children of more educated parents who know how to prepare their offspring for an all-important entrance exam given at 11 years of age. Proponents say that grammar schools boost achievement, give underprivileged students better opportunity and increase parental choice and competition.

As with Brexit, divisions over grammar schools don’t split neatly along party lines. In the 1980s, the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed more grammar schools than any predecessor. Labour’s Tony Blair protected the 164 or so grammars that remained after he took office in 1997 and considered the closings to be a form of “academic vandalism.” The Eton-educated Cameron’s opposition to selective-education seemed partly about a desire to rebut charges of elitism. His education policy included an expansion of the “academy” system introduced under Blair, which gave schools more control over their curriculum and teacher pay and access to additional public funds.

Grammar schools perform well and poorer children do better in them than they do nationally, though a 2008 study said they enroll too few academically able children from disadvantaged backgrounds. That may be partly because many are situated in wealthier areas and partly because wealthier families buy up property around them. The research contradicted the old charge that by creaming off the best students, selective schools leave the rest worse off.

Only around 7 percent of British pupils are educated privately, at schools which can cost more than $30,000 a year for non-boarding options, but they account for 71 percent of senior judges, 62 percent of senior armed forces officers and over half of the House of Lords. Private spending is skyrocketing even outside the private school system. In a country where public exams at key stages in a child’s education are make-or-break, a 6-billion-pound ($7.9 billion) tutoring industry now serves anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of British students (the number varies depending on how the count is done).

What’s clear is that the U.K. system, renowned for its elite private schools, needs an answer for what one study called “the long tail of academic underachievers.” Despite some of the highest levels of state spending on education, there is a large achievement gap between the top schools and the rest, and a widening attainment gap between the poor and other students.

The education divide, long fingered as a key reason for Britain’s comparatively low levels of intergenerational social mobility, also has implications for the direction of the country, as we learned in June. Fifty-seven percent of those with a university degree voted to remain in the EU while a large majority of those who have only a secondary education or less voted to leave.

May, grammar-school educated herself, noted that the Brexit vote reflected a “profound sense of frustration” by Britons on issues like the struggle to get children into good schools.

“This is about being unapologetic for our belief in social mobility and making this country a true meritocracy – a country that works for everyone,” she said before the debate in parliament over her reforms. While the details are not yet clear, her plan seems to make grammar schools more meritocratic and more open to underprivileged pupils.

Her most important innovation, though least discussed, may be plans to allow selective schools to take new pupils at ages 14 and 16 rather than only at 11. The British system, unlike the American one, rarely awards second chances, and even the most prestigious fee-taking British schools are terrible at encouraging risk-taking since children are channeled early into activities and pursuits that enhance their test-taking abilities.

It will take further changes – better provisions for vocational training and teacher education among other things – to effect more far-reaching change. But, ironically thanks to Brexit, May has just opened a discussion that could redefine the social contract some Brexiters wanted to preserve. It’s a conversation that Cameron, himself a champion of social reform, will no longer be part of.

Raphael is a Bloomberg View editor in London, writing about European politics and economics. © 2016, Bloomberg View