Young people and grammar schools


This is the slightly edited text of the speech to party conference on Sunday 18th September, moving the motion with the same title. The text of the motion can be seen here.

We believe in social mobility, but social mobility is more than simply plucking a few from disadvantaged backgrounds, by unreliable assessment and unfair procedures, at the age of 11.

In any case, all-embracing division at age 11 sends a damaging message about how we value each young person.

Actually, we believe in more than social mobility; we want even people who choose to stay in particular social groups to be better educated and better off. Not only is that good for them, it is necessary for our economy.

Gone are the days when unqualified youngsters from secondary modern schools could walk into a good job.

Gone, we hope are the days when an educated elite takes charge of everything and the rest are merely simple-minded servants.

Likewise we need more education for our society and our democracy; local and national governments and voluntary organisations have more complicated decisions to make, requiring greater understanding and participation on the part of all our people.

Theresa May accuses her opponents of  ideology. So what ! We Lib-Dems have ideas that fit the practical needs of everyone, including the working class. SHE simply has the dogma of a past elitist system inappropriate  in a competitive, complicated globalised world. She cannot justify that dogma on the basis of providing opportunity for the few to step up the ladder; she has already reneged on her promise to govern for everybody.

Some parents are understandably excited about the possibility of their children getting into a grammar school; schools branded good as judged by high exam results, due largely to selecting only those who can achieve them. I say to these parents, do not be deceived; the majority of your children will not benefit from this policy. Sam Freedman, former advisor to Michael Gove, wrote a few days ago “Selective schools destroy choice… As a parent I don’t want a shot at a good school place, I want a guarantee and that is impossible in a system with selective schools.”

Children in selective systems who do not get into grammar schools do worse than their equivalents in comprehensive systems and there is little correlation between test performance at age 11 and later achievement. Only 3% of children in grammar schools are from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to 19% in other schools.

Even if there were a reliable fair way of dividing children at age 11, the idea would still be flawed.

Children are highly-sensitive human beings who have a huge and complex variety of talents, that can still change and develop so much. Dividing children at age 11 into just two types is crude in the extreme. It is an unintelligent approach.

Now, I used to hear a few left-wing teachers and recently some trade unionists say that in a comprehensive school they must all be taught the same. That is the opposite mistake. Likewise in a grammar school some do not benefit from all being taught the same.  Comprehensive schools are there to cater for the complex mix of talents and very many of these schools have shown it can be done, including, ambitious parents note, for the very bright

Now, learning is not just about academic knowledge; the mix of talents in one school can itself be stimulating for all children.  With discipline and a caring environment, being in the same school with your peers in all their differences is itself a good lesson.

Lets not just be negative here. The positive alternative is to focus on the right kind of flexible natural selection within schools and where necessary for neighbouring schools to cooperate in providing for those with exceptional talent or particular problems. Most important of all is the quality of teaching, the continuous training of a variety of talented teachers and quality support in the first 5 years of a child’s life.

Finally, if we really want to improve life for the disadvantaged we cannot expect the schools to do it alone. The school’s community matters.  In 2013, an organisation called Research and Information on State Education, said that up to 80% of the differences in performance in schools was accounted for by what goes on outside the school.

So let’s say to Theresa May; if you really want to improve life chances for everyone, you must abandon your proposals for grammar schools; concentrate on resourcing local services so they can all work in partnership with our schools; improve early years  AND above all, ensure good quality well-supported teachers.

* Nigel Jones is currently secretary of Newcastle under Lyme Liberal Democrats and the Chair of the Liberal Democrat Education Association.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Speeches.


  • David Evershed 26th Sep '16 - 7:21pm

    The current situation is that a disproportionately high number of senior positions in politics, business, sport, acting and films are being filled by people who went to public school.

    Those who went to comprehensive school do not seem to be breaking through to senior positions in the way that grammar school children have done in the past.

    The brightest non public school children are not doing as well as they should, to the detriment of society.

  • Perhaps I’m looking at it wrong, but from a quick scan through the recent OECD “Education at a Glance” report 2016 (available here: ) and specifically the Summary and UK notes, I can’t find any information to indicate that it has actually assessed the types of education provided by individual countries; it would seem the comparison of the outcomes of public schooling v state schooling is at a level of detail outside the scope of this publication.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 26th Sep '16 - 11:26pm

    Rebecca ,
    very good to see you on here, you have not been regularly commenting , I liked your previous contributions and considerable knowledge on education. Do return on a more frequent basis!

  • Rebecca, Tim’s speech and the webinar are not primary sources. Given it seems you are more familiar with this material and specifically the OECD report (which you are saying provides evidence to support the point you made concerning David’s point), it would be helpful if you could either point directly at the research finding or explain the inference I seem to be missing.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 27th Sep '16 - 2:13pm

    Thanks for responding , glad your business is going well, and what is the comment on a by election regarding, are you now a local councillor ?

    Your presence on those threads or articles you commented on here some time ago, whether on education or beyond, had a terrific combination of humility and openness and audacity and confidence. I liked it and you as a result , as you seemed to both think and feel a lot, very necessary for us Liberal Democrats !

    I well remember a rather heated debate between you and another regular , in which you very staunchly and passionately advocated and defended the work of your late father, whose name escapes me , apologies, but it had a flavour of what Helen Taylor Mill might have done for John Stuart Mill, and I admired your tenacity !

    Shall look out for you !

  • David Evershed 27th Sep '16 - 2:48pm


    You say “The evidence and the research does not show that reintroducing grammar schools will improve the situation “.

    What is the source of your evidence please?

    My point was that comprehensive school pupils have not broken through into the top positions in the way grammar school children have done in the past.

  • Richard Fortescue 27th Sep '16 - 11:55pm


    You make an interesting point, but it remains that I have a problem with selection at 11, for the reasons that Rebecca highlights.

    Comprehensive schools are sending top quality students to top quality universities, so I think it more interesting to ask why those people are not yet breaking through to into top positions. What do we, who teach in comprehensive schools, need to do differently to empower our students to take up leading roles?

    I don’t think grammar schools are the answer because I feel that their existance tends to maintain social division, rather than enabling wider social mobility.

  • Just to spoil the party 🙂

    The “Building a school system that works for everyone” consultation may be found by following the link at the bottom of this Department of Education news story:

    You may wish to read the consultation document which contains details about the all the other proposals and then complete the online survey. I suspect feedback received will have a greater effect on government policy than conference motions …

  • The “families who are just about managing” section of the consultation document may be found on pages 10 and 11 of the consultation document; a link to which may be found in the “Related Documents” section of the consultation home page: .

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Sep '16 - 1:18am


    Lovely to hear your father is with us , he seems to be someone you admire a great deal professionally as well as personally.

    And congratulations on being elected as a Liberal Democrat councillor , having stood for the party, as a council candidate, a few years ago,in an area where , then, you could have put a red rosette on a dummy and Labour would have won , I commend you !

    Do return to LDV more, and I shall take up your invitation to engage with what you are doing on your own site , sometimes, as well as in the LDEA , good to be in communication.

  • Nigel Jones 30th Sep '16 - 1:13pm

    Rebecca raises an important cultural-based issue, i.e. that where selective schools exist, parents and others give them their attention to the neglect of the other schools. With the demise of LAs, that increases the risk of sink schools developing. That may be true, but what is clear at the moment is that areas with selective schools, do not help the overall attainment of pupils in that area, usually the reverse.
    The newly named Education Policy Institute (formerly Centre Forum) published a report last week ‘Grammar Schools and Social Mobility’. This organisation bases its reports primarily on exams and test results, rather than cultural or social issues. It states among other things, that there is no evidence to show that having selective schools will increase social mobility and also that expansion of selective schools in an area where they already exist will cause loss of attainment among poor children and will not enhance achievement of the grammar school pupils.
    To see the report go to
    Please note they are not to be confused with the international Education Policy Institute (based in USA) nor the Economic Policy Institute, both of which have similar web addresses.

  • nvelope2003 30th Sep '16 - 9:44pm

    Another interesting academic discussion but those who want comprehensives for other people’s children seem less keen to send their own to them. It was quite illuminating to see Michael Crick at the Labour Conference, chasing some well known comprehensive school supporters, for example Diane Abbott, Charles Falconer, Shami Chakrabati etc to get them to explain why they either had, were or were planning to send their own children to fee paying schools. Falconer said at least his children were not going to a grammar school as though that made it ok.

  • Peter Watson 2nd Oct '16 - 11:38am

    @nvelope2003 “Another interesting academic discussion but those who want comprehensives for other people’s children seem less keen to send their own to them. It was quite illuminating to … to get them to explain why they either had, were or were planning to send their own children to fee paying schools.”
    I don’t think it is hypocritical for people to send their own children to private schools while promoting comprehensive state education, just like I think it is okay for people to support the NHS while paying for health insurance or private treatment. Wealthy people have more options than the rest of us, but as long as private schools are not given undeserved charitable status to reduce their tax bill, and as long as parents who use them continue to pay their taxes to support the state system, then I believe our focus should be on improving state schools rather than eating the rich.
    Equally, if somebody supports comprehensive education but lives in an area with grammar schools, then a truly comprehensive school is not an option so I would not condemn a parent for choosing a grammar school over a de facto secondary modern.
    Where I can see your point is if someone is promoting comprehensive education while gaming the system to get their child into a grammar school (e.g. by moving home, playing the “faith” card, transporting children from outside the school’s area, etc.). But even then, I can reluctantly accept that a parent might choose to take advantage of the social filtering of grammar schools for their own children while they also believe that it is not a good thing for society as a whole.

  • Jayne Mansfield 2nd Oct '16 - 11:58am

    @ Peter Watson,
    I couldn’t agree more.

  • nvelope2003 16th Oct '16 - 5:07pm

    The ruling elite hated grammar schools because they gave ordinary people the chance to compete with public school educated people for the best jobs and now that grammar schools have largely been eliminated those jobs now mostly go to public school educated people as they did before. Many public schools were in danger of closing until most grammar schools were closed.

    The wholly comprehensive system appeals to the naive and the upper and upper midddle class people who largely run the UK soon latched on to this as a way to get rid of the competition. The tone of many of the comments on this issue indicate that this is a true reflection of the real situation. If the Liberal Democrats really believed in a fair education system they would force public schools to accept all who wished to go to them without charge. Many of these schools were originally started as charitable institutions for the education of poor children and still receive the benefits of charitable status. Only a revived grammar system will enable ordinary people to get the best jobs. The comprehensives seem to be factories for giving children paper qualifications, not true education of the mind and the spirit.
    Germany has such a system and is hardly an economic disaster area. In that country you get the job because you are the best person for it and not because you went to a fee paying school.

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