Grammar schools and Brexit

In England, in the EU Referendum, 53.4% of voters chose Leave. However, in districts with grammar schools, that figure was 56.1%. Imagine, for a moment, that no one at all voted in those areas. It might seem a bit hard on each side to group voters in Kingston and Cheltenham, with some of the highest Remain votes in the country, with those in Lincolnshire and south-east Essex, who recorded the very lowest. Nevertheless, the consequence of their removal would reduce the margin of the Leave victory to just 2%, 51% – 49%.

Obviously, therefore, this is not the full explanation of Brexit, but its implications deserve consideration. The vast majority of voters who had grown up in these districts will not have been to grammar schools. What has been the enduring impact of this division at an early age on their outlooks? Would it be surprising if it made them resentful of the superior life chances that others gained from success in a particular set of tests at the age of 11?

The average old Etonian might be horrified to think that he could be grouped in anyone’s mind with the products of grammar schools, but for most people there is more that unites the social position of Theresa May and George Osborne than distinguishes them. When they got an opportunity to show their resentment of these people running the country and threatening them with dire consequences if they voted the wrong way, they took it. Yes, the products of private and grammar schools also led the Leave side but, irritatingly, they were seen primarily as enemies of the establishment.

We can’t push this too far. Thurrock (72% Leave) has no grammar schools; Barnet (62% Remain) does. Nevertheless, summarising all these differences, 56.1% of voters in English voting districts with grammar schools voted to Leave, compared with 52.7% without such schools. It is reasonable to argue that, if we create more grammar schools, we create more anger and resentment, and a reason for more of Theresa May’s core support in the middle classes to protect their children from the children of the angry people via desperate coaching for the 11+. How this helps her ambition, when she became PM, to create “A country that works not for the privileged few but that works for every one of us” is anyone’s guess.

Note on data: The areas with grammar schools were drawn from here. Voting figures come from the BBC. There are some problems, such as whether or not to include Wiltshire unitary authority when there are only grammar schools in Salisbury (I did) or whether to include Liverpool, which now has only one grammar school with a tiny intake (I didn’t), but these do not alter the fundamental picture. Internal migration means that place of voting is not entirely the same as place of schooling. I hope the British Election Study can find out whether voters who failed, or did not take, the 11+ are more likely to have voted Leave and whether they saw this as a protest against the establishment. However, whether the new, pro-Brexit political establishment in government can re-connect with these voters is highly doubtful.

* John Death joined the Liberal Party in 1974 and is a retired teacher.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Catherine Jane Crosland 22nd Sep '16 - 9:51am

    Interesting statistics, and interesting argument. I’m not sure whether or not its logical, though – areas which still have grammar schools may have other factors in common too…
    But also, you are looking at which areas *still* have grammar schools *now*. But you would need to remember that most areas only introduced comprehensives in the 1970s, or in some cases later. The vast majority of people aged sixty and over experienced selection, whatever area they live in. So did many people now in their fifties and late forties, in large areas of the country. But the vast majority of people under forty did not experience selection – except in a few parts of the country which still retain it.
    We know that people in their sixties and early seventies – the vast majority of whom experienced selection- were the most likely to vote leave. The majority of people under forty voted remain, and the vast majority of people this age were educated at comprehensives.
    So that sort of supports your theory. Nevertheless I’m not sure I’m convinced by it.

  • But surely the point is these votes are not removable and as stated some of the areas without grammar schools voted even more markedly for leave anyway. To me this kind of argument comes across as an attempt to delegitimise votes on the grounds of who is voting one way or another. Some Leavers for instance, using this kind of logic, could claim that if you took out the urban vote or discounted the young then the Leave majority would rise. Or even just ask why there is so much speculation and conjecture about the “real” reasons people voted leave and virtually non about the possible “real” reasons for a remain vote. For example was the Remain vote really as solidly committed to the EU as a project as suggested by Europhiles or how much of it was driven by fear of the unknown. Or does the spread of the vote really suggest only informed liberalism as a factor or were all sorts of factors coming into play. Also Theresa May was actually in favour of Remain. On top of which some in the Remain camp were pretty angry and resentful to the point of accusing the opposition of stupidity, racism, fascism and destroying Britain etc.
    The truth is there multiple factors involved on both sides of the argument. It simply turned out the EU was not popular enough to edge the vote. That’s not to say that passionate pro EU supporters should give up on their ideals or cease to fight their corner, but simply to suggest that they accept that a lot of people disagree rather than trying to explain the result away with endless graphs and pet theories.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 22nd Sep '16 - 10:51am

    It is true that people who attended Secondary Modern schools may well have justifiable lifelong emotions of anger and resentment. But it does seem a bit patronising to assume that this is the reason people voted Leave in the referendum

  • To me the main problem is trying to depict Leave voters as only resentful and angry in the first place rather than address the possibility that the biggest factor was really the value placed on nation v pan Europeanism.

  • Thank you to Catherine, Adrian and Glenn for these considered responses. I do realise that the existence of grammar schools is not a strong explanation for Brexit, but that is not really what I’m arguing. The referendum result gives us some tantalising data which it would be interesting to explore further, alongside the familiar arguments on, for example, age. I agree with Catherine that historic resentments might not be reflected just in areas currently with grammar schools and, as I pointed out in the article, there will have been significant population movement into and away from these areas since anyone’s school days. That is why I’d like to see the academic analysis explore the issue carefully.

    However, my main point is not about Brexit but about anger. When I was giving out Britain Stronger in Europe leaflets at Rochester Station, alongside activists from other parties, we were all struck by the extent of anger. Kent has always had grammar schools and so it is reasonable to ponder whether the existence of institutions which are patently socially divisive might be a factor behind that anger. In response to Glenn, my point is that, if Theresa May wants to expand a force for social division, it is immaterial whether she and Cameron were against or for Brexit.

    One final point on Adrian’s comment about the admittedly ‘noisy data’. The difference is not 53.4% to 56.1%, since the 53.4% includes those grammar school areas. English areas withiut these schools voted 52.7% to Leave. That’s a difference of 3.4%, which I think is some significance.

  • nvelope2003 22nd Sep '16 - 8:13pm

    My area does not have grammar schools but I have seen people who voted Leave get up in anger and walk away when their view was very politely challenged. They believed Britain was still a world power and able to stand up for itself without the EU.

  • Peter Reisdorf 22nd Sep '16 - 9:03pm

    I’m really surprised by these figures. The Wirral West and Wirral South constituencies both have grammar schools and voted remain as did the Wirral borough as a whole. I should mention that in the rest of the borough the Wallasey constituency also appears to have voted remain (but the figures we have exclude postal votes and it was very close) and only has comprehensive schools, but Birkenhead, which is also comprehensive only, voted leave. Labour ran a strong remain campaign in Wirral West, but it was the Tory areas that voted most strongly remain. These are the overall figures:

  • Peter Watson 22nd Sep '16 - 9:20pm

    @Peter Reisdorf “Labour ran a strong remain campaign in Wirral West”
    Wash your mouth out with soap! You’re not allowed to say something like that round here! 😉

  • This is an intriguing idea. It fits with the suggestion that support for May’s initiative comes from people assuming their children/grandchildren would get into grammar schools — in defiance of the reality that most won’t. It also puts some flesh on the idea that stoking debate on grammar schools is an attempt to divert attention from Brexit

  • Peter Reisdorf might be pleased to learn that 52 polling districts with grammar schools had a higher Leave vote than the Wirral or that it was not in the top 50 which all had a Leave majority. That is why I averaged them all without sifting in any way. In fact, there are certainly some other distinctions that could be made. The ethnic mix, the age profile, the local political strengths and many other factors will all have affected the results. However, if, as I believe, the Leave vote was largely an expression of anger against the establishment, then why, on average, were areas with selective schools more angry?

  • Jon Death,
    I think it was mainly just a vote against the EU and one that has been building for years. Britain, even the bulk of remain know this , has never wholeheartedly supported the EU which is why so many opt outs and concessions were sort. Maybe, you chaps are simply so convinced of the EU’s value that you can’t imagine why anyone would disagree and so are looking for some reason other than the EU itself. But why doesn’t Norway want to join or if it’s so attractive why not invite America or other nations to join. After all it is only an accident of geographic location that means other nations are not in Europe. Surely, a case could be made that Nativism and anger are the only things stopping other countries from wanting to have a seat in Brussels.

  • Oh Glenn, this isn’t what I was saying. There is a difference between voting behaviour in districts with grammar schools in England compared with those without. You cannot explain it by saying just that you think they were right to vote against the EU. That is your view. However, you are confused on the subject and to disentangle all the confusions would require a whole range of articles. Essentially, to quote someone I heard at the conference last week, Norway is a member of the EU but just doesn’t realise it.

  • John Death’
    Fair enough, if you feel that way, but I think what you are doing is a classic example of trying to link correlation to causation to join two big current stories together. Personally. I think people are mostly tribal and the voting patterns largely represent a tendency towards a tribal affirmation of values and it just so happened that Leave was a slightly bigger tribe with a better turnout ratio. My guess is that in a couple of years once people are used to it not many people will want to rejoin the EU.

  • Simon Banks 25th Sep '16 - 9:52pm

    Areas with grammar schools produced above average Leave votes. Areas with high levels of education produced below average Leave votes. Q.E.D.: grammar schools depress education levels.

    Actually, this quirk is probably because John is looking at counties or sub-counties, while I’m looking at smaller units.

    Personally I doubt if those who do not get grammar places in areas which have them are more resentful of the establishment than their social and educational equivalents elsewhere. The heaviest Brexit votes were in depressed areas, areas with very heavy recent immigration or areas which combine relatively low educational attainment with large numbers of older people.

    As for public school products looking down on grammar, my experience as a grammar school product at Cambridge was that most public school types thought you were OK as long as you weren’t an Etonian.

  • Simon Banks.
    Actually the heaviest Brexit votes were in rural and Suburban areas. It was basically the verdict of middle England. The concentration on lower in-come areas stems mostly from belief that the less well off live in communities that do what their spiritual/political representatives tell them to do and that Labour failed to control them properly. Note, no one expected the Pro EU Conservative PM to control Conservative voting communities in the Conservative heartlands. I’m not fond of the term Metropolitan Liberal Elite because it’s a bit of a meaningless reduction, but I do think the media tends to talk to itself about itself and the knock effect is that outsiders, especially the poor, are subject to interpretation and speculation rather than being listened to or taken at face value when they say something.

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