Selina Todd – the myth of the grammar schools and why it still haunts us

The myth of the grammar school has an extraordinary grip on the education narrative in England. There was a time in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s when grass root revolts in favour of comprehensives seemed to be turning the tide. But it hasn’t gone away and there is still a powerful lobby demanding the protection and extension of selection.

Caroline Benn was one of the foremost campaigners for the ending of selection. It was fitting therefore that, in the year after Tony Benn’s death, Selina Todd took on and demolished the myth in her Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture promoted by the SEA.

To begin with she reminded us that, in the 1940’s, the majority of the workforce it was believed needed only to be trained for routine working class jobs – in Ellen Wilkinson’s words “coal has to be mined and fields have to be ploughed”. This was an education system designed around the needs of the economy not one intended to develop the talents of the whole population.

Then as now, educational selection was about class. More than half of middle class children got to grammar school but less than one fifth of working class children did so. And once a few working class children got to grammar school, they had to face a conflict between family and community and school which led to many failing to achieve what they could have done.

Grammar schools were rarely sited in working class areas. They expected families to afford innumerable extras. They demanded pupils confined themselves to school led sports and activities and cut themselves off from their communities. Some actively rebelled, more sank into the bottom streams and left early and a few – like Dennis Potter’s Nigel Barton – rejected their background with all the trauma that that could lead to.

Meanwhile there was a great unmet demand for better education from the rejected in the secondary moderns. These schools were starved of resources and offered very narrow opportunities – with the leaving age at 15, many offered no access to qualifications. The demand for something better was documented by HMI at the time and in the Crowther Report. The result was a demand for comprehensive education in Labour and Tory areas alike, often as a result of public demand which demanded action from nervous politicians.

At the heart of the grammar school myth is the notion that they were a pathway for the “bright” working class child into middle class professions. Implicit in this is that talent is limited and that we need to rescue the talented few because if we don’t they be dragged back by the inadequacies of the majority. This is a very convenient myth for the few who made it through 11+ and grammar school. It says that they deserved their success because they are people of superior ability – most people just aren’t up to it!

Of course the reason some working class kids moved into the middle class is because the labour market was changing – the need for junior managers, technicians, teachers, nurses and so on was growing rapidly in the third quarter of the century. But the really prestigious professions remained overwhelmingly the preserve of the established middle and upper classes – as indeed they do today.

The ambition of the comprehensive movement was to educate every child not just for work but for citizenship and for a full life. It rejected the idea that there is a fixed pool of talent and that the job of schools is to sort people into the right order.

Selina Todd’s analysis of the grammar school myth resonated with the packed committee room in the House of Commons because the battle is far from won. Selection remains a reality in many parts of England. UKIP promises a grammar school in every town and Theresa May signals her support for what would be the first new grammar school in many years in her Maidenhead constituency. And of course covert selection is rampant through much of the country often but not always under the banner of religion.

The evidence is clear that comprehensives opened many doors that had been shut before. Instead of being held back by comprehensives, many more children achieved exam success and, helped by the huge expansion of higher education, proved themselves able to succeed at university. We know that selective Kent gets poorer results than comparable comprehensive counties. The international evidence from OECD is equally clear that selection damages achievement.

But still we agonise over our lack of social mobility. There is less of it now because the pool of middle class jobs is not growing as it was in the 60’s and 70’s and the privileged remain very good at keeping them for their own children.

But more fundamentally focussing on social mobility is asking the wrong question. It is assuming that the kind of inequality we have now is inevitable and the only question is who gets the prizes. But as Ed Miliband said just today “This country is too unequal. And we need to change it.”

After the lecture, John Cryer MP, chair of the SEA parliamentary group made the same point with huge passion – the issue remains class. Class determined in large measure who got to grammar schools and it still does where that system remains. But as the number of children living in poverty grows, the inequality between classes continues to constrain the opportunities open to very many children even in comprehensive schools.

An audio version of Selina Todd’s lecture is available at

Her arguments are developed further in her book The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010


3 Comments on “Selina Todd – the myth of the grammar schools and why it still haunts us”

  1. David Pavett says:

    Selena Todd’s lecture was brilliant. She dealt with very specific forms of inequality and showed how the movement to comprehensive schools which Labour was never willing to see through to completion was a powerful answer to those forms. Labour has now moved so far from the original concept of comprehensive education that now we have its Shadow Education Secretary telling a right-wing think tank “I want to see innovation. The chance you have when you set up a new school is to think creatively about provision and that’s were we want to see parent-led academies really lead the field.”

    • johnebolt says:

      Surely we do want to see innovation? Surely we do want to think creatively about provision? Comprehensive schools should surely not just follow one identical model. And surely setting up a new school is a particular opportunity to try something new?. Many of the early comprehensives did just that.

      Nor I believe should we be afraid of parental initiative. There are bad examples but there are also very positive ones which are genuinely meeting a demand. The issues are governance and accountability – schools can’t do just what they want and they can’t be set up just wherever anyone fancies. That is where Labour has yet to fully define a workable model that builds in proper local governance and accountability.

      • David Pavett says:

        Everyone wants innovation. I did not suggest otherwise. So that is not the issue.

        Do we want to “think creatively” about provision? That is quite another matter. When does diversity of provision become diversity of providers? The demand for diversity of provision to give parents choice in an educational quasi-market is a standard neoliberal response to the idea of a democratic public framework for schools.

        Every single teacher and every single school will have an individual style if things are working well. The issue is whether that is facilitated or hindered by the atomisation of provision. Most people on the left, including me, think that schools should all come within the framework of local government. Is that to reduce diversity? Well, clearly in market terms it is. But in educational terms it implies no such thing. In fact a local democratic framework can encourage experimentation in a way that atomised schools competing for pupils through the optic of performance tables cannot.

        I’m all for parental, or anyone else’s, initiatives but does this lead us to support parent-led academies? I don’t think so. Articles on this blog have consistently opposed free-schools and rightly so. Parent-led academies are the same thing under another name. Is it consistent to oppose one and be open to the other?

        If parents, or anyone else, have an idea for a new school and if there is a need for new school places then that is fine. They should put forward their proposals through an open process run by their local authority leading, if the proposal is a good one, to a new school serving the local community without special favours to anyone’s children. But that is not what parent-led academies are about. At least, the lack of definition provided by Tristram Hunt and his team give no grounds for thinking that the motivation for parent-led academies would be any different from free schools (hence the ‘welcome to the club’ messages for parent-led academies from free school warriors like Toby Young).