This soundbite appears to have been coined by Peter Hitchens, who claims that the Prime Minister stole it from him. Hichens says that he has “been making this exact point for many years, as part of a lonely campaign to restore our lost grammar schools.” Both the politicians and the polemicist are entirely wrong, however. No English state school can be accused of ‘selection by wealth’. It is nonsense and those who mindlessly repeat it should just stop it.
When pressed to explain his unfounded claim about selection by wealth, Hitchens refers to his contribution to the 2015 Civitas document, ’Why Is Selection by Wealth Better Than Selection by Ability?’ The core argument – such as it is - in Hitchens’ polemic is not about ‘selection by wealth’, however. It is that, as things stand, some people – not schools, people – game the system, that ability-segregated state secondary schools are A Good Thing which only an 'idiot left-wing egalitarian’ (I paraphrase) would oppose, and that some Conservative politicians are hypocrites with sharp elbows and an eye on the electorate. Oh, and we should ‘restore our lost grammar schools’ and select by ability.
To justify his ludicrous ‘selection by wealth’ soundbite, Hitchens quotes an estate agent puff piece in the London Evening Standard. This claimed that, in 2014, homes close to former grammar schools in London were on average £54,000 more expensive than homes elsewhere in the capital. This doesn’t provide any evidence whatsoever that schools ‘select by wealth’, however. As the original piece states, most of the schools in these more expensive areas are academically selective and proximity to the school provides no advantage whatsoever to those who apply to the school. What’s more, there are many other reasons to question whether higher house prices in parts of the capital could ever provide evidence that schools ‘select by wealth’.
In fact, as Hitchens goes on to explain in his misguided piece, ‘too bad if you don’t have well-informed parents, who can navigate the complex entry procedures of the better schools’. He then lays bare the hoops ‘well-informed parents’ will jump through to get their children into school with the highest results (which Hitchens, possibly misled by Ofsted, or simply misguidedly, wrongly labels the ‘better schools’). This is quite clearly not ‘selection by wealth’: There is no financial barrier to becoming a ‘well-informed parent’.
Selection by parents is not the same as 'schools' selecting by wealth', as Hitchens tacitly acknowledges. It is this sleight of hand which has led Theresa May into her calamitous decision to appease her party’s right wing by announcing a reversal of Labour’s ban on new Grammar Schools. Well-informed parents will, naturally, select their children’s education as much as they possibly can. Research by Bristol University suggests that what parents care about are ‘academic attainment, school socio-economic composition and travel distance’.
There is, in fact, little to suggest that any parent doesn’t want the best education for their child. Both Labour and Conservative governments of the last thirty years have based their education policies on this axiomatic premise. Parents might try to game the system and select their children’s state secondary school, but this is selection by parents, not by schools.
Whilst non-selective school admission codes – which have to prioritise by proximity once special educational needs are taken into consideration – mean that schools admit children by postcode, schools cannot affect this very much (other than some dubious practice)*. So whilst parents might consider which schools their children might get into before buying or renting property, this is hardly a surprise to any parent, or anyone who considers for a moment why this might happen. But state schools simply have no way whatsoever of selecting by wealth.
Schools can, of course, make entrance difficult and try to skew their intakes towards keen parents. There are many ways in which schools have tried to influence who attends them. Schools which game the system might require children to take ‘fair banding’ entrance exams (which discriminate against those who are poor and/or more disorganised), or introduce weird and wonderful term dates (which discriminate against large families with children at primary schools with different term dates) or odd start/end times (ditto) or require expensive uniforms. Many schools simply flout admissions rules. The skewed admissions of many faith schools are so well known, they have entire campaigns dedicated to detailing them. The whole academy project begun by new Labour was, it can be argued, aimed at changing tough schools' intakes.
But none of this is selection by wealth in any way, and the Prime Minister’s suggestion that this describes the current system of secondary school admissions in England’s state schools is political sleight of hand. It's a deliberate attempt to cloud the issue and it has no basis in fact.
Theresa May has been sold a pup. Schools don’t select by wealth. Grammar schools are a disastrous, socially divisive anachronism which do not and did not help disadvantaged children as a group. Comprehensive schools support their entire community regardless of wealth, and selection of any kind before the age of 16 is demonstrably bad for society.
May is beginning to realise this, it would appear. Her retrograde Grammar School plan been rebutted at every turn by anyone who has any authority in education, and she is now being forced to scrabble about asking for people to come up with something, anything to justify the silly idea. In a masterful ‘Why ask me? I just parrot this stuff” speech, she reveals she knows there is no evidence for her position: “I get challenged in the House of Commons by those who say to me: ‘Where is your evidence that grammar schools make a difference?’ But I would say to all of you that you can give us the evidence.”
She hasn’t asked anyone to give her the evidence for the nonsensical ‘selection by wealth’ soundbite because even she must know by now that it simply isn’t true. Stop repeating it. Just stop it.
*A solution would be to admit children into secondary schools by lottery, but this is, for obvious reasons, not popular with parents.
(This blog post continues a series of Just Stop It posts which began with Stop repeating nonsense about ‘bad’ teachers. Just. Stop it.)