How strong is the support for grammar schools?Posted: November 10, 2015
I recently attended a discussion on grammar schools at which a speaker quite rightly said that the issue of selective education is one that “has to be won in the court of public opinion”. He added in the same spirit that “It is not enough to bully a couple of Shadow Ministers into saying something on the matter”.
Later the same speaker said “all the polling, even when when you ask the question ‘would you support 25% of people going to grammar schools and 75% going to secondary modern schools? all the polling says ‘absolutely, we support it’ by about two to one”.
Well, I have seen the polling too and I am unconvinced. Seasoned poll-watchers may well feel that there is not much about most polls, especially educational ones, that can be regarded as “incontrovertible”.
I guess that the reference was to the YouGov poll on grammar schools carried out for The Times by YouGov in November 2014. The Times headline to an article reporting the poll results was “Parents say yes to more grammar schools”.
But is this interpretation really “incontrovertible”? Certainly Janet Downes did not think so in her comment on the Local Schools Network where her piece on the subject carried the heading “Only 38% would support building new grammars, says latest YouGov poll”. The basis for such diverse interpretations merits examination.
The polling questions, put to 1890 people, were framed with the statement “Thinking about grammar schools and schools that select pupils by ability, which of the following best reflects your views?”
The options which followed, along with the percentage in favour of each, were
The government should encourage more schools to select by academic ability and build more grammar schools
The government should retain the existing grammar schools, but should not allow more selective schools or new grammar schools to be built
The government should stop schools selecting by academic ability and the existing grammar schools should be opened to children of all abilities
The Times presented this a parents supporting grammar schools but Janet Downes was also justified in presenting it as 46% against grammar school extensions compared to 36% in favour. While I do not question the idea that the arguments over grammar schools have to be won in the court of public opinion I take some comfort from this result which was obtained in the absence of any Labour Party leadership on the issue.
Also a more thorough poll might have investigated the illogicality of being against grammar school expansion but not in favour of ending existing selection.
The break-down of the results by age is interesting. In the age groups 18-24, 25-59, 40-59, 60+ there was increasing support for grammars by age reaching the highest value in the 60+ age group i.e. the group most likely to have been to grammar school. Thus in answer to the first question support fell to 29% in the 18-24 age group and rose to 51% in the 60+ group. It is also interesting that support for new grammar schools among UKIP (the only Party without outright support for the policy) voters was only 46%.
We also need to study how views change in time. This is, of course, difficult in the absence of systematic polling on a common basis. However, it is interesting that the poll carried out for National Grammar School Association in July 2007 seems to show stronger support for grammar schools than the Times poll of 2014. The question on support for grammar schools was framed with “Most State secondary schools in Britain today are comprehensive but a few counties in Britain still have grammar schools where entrance is through the eleven plus exam. Please click on the option below which most closely describes your views about grammar schools and the eleven plus” the following results were obtained
I think that all secondary schools should be comprehensive with no grammar schools
I think that all secondary school aged children who wish to should be able to go to grammar school if they pass an exam
When asked “And would you support or oppose the creation of new Grammar Schools in areas that do not currently have any?” 60% said “yes”, 18% said “no” and 22% were don’t knows.
Both polls were conducted (1) against a background of a long-term continuous barrage of anti-comprehensive, pro-grammar propaganda in the media and (2) in the absence of any serious effort by the Labour Party to explain the success of comprehensive schools and the harmful effect of grammar schools on the education system as a whole.
It is also worth noting that a YouGov poll reported in Prospect Magazine in February 2013 recorded 83% of primary schools parent and 77% of secondary school parents agreeing with the proposition “Our local state schools generally provide a good quality education”.
The battle for public opinion has indeed to be fought and won but the results of the above polls and others show, I believe, that there is every reason to believe that a clear majority of the electorate is ready to listen to the case the case for good quality comprehensive schooling. The arguments are there in plenty. The research has been done. The key to success is now that the Labour Party decides on whole hearted support for a fully comprehensive education system. This argument for this needs to be raised at every opportunity and level in the Party so that the Shadow Education Secretary is clear as to what Party member members want and so that corresponding policies are adopted through the Parties decision making procedures.