The fact that Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom have made positive noises about grammar schools will no doubt re-open the debate about selective education.
The argument usually boils down to the likely impact of grammar schools on social mobility. That, in turn, often becomes an argument about whether declining levels of social mobility in the UK can be attributed to the introduction of comprehensives and the gradual phasing out of grammars over the past 50 years or so.
Like most defenders of selective education, Andrea Leadsom believes grammar schools in their heyday provided bright children from modest backgrounds with the opportunity to compete with more affluent children for places at university, thereby accounting for higher levels of social mobility in the 1950s and 60s compared to today. Critics dispute this, claiming that only a small minority of children at grammar schools in the 1950s were the offspring of unskilled or semi-skilled workers and the majority were the children of members of the managerial or professional class.
The problem with this argument is that it isn't a rebuttal. It may be that only a minority of children at grammar schools in their heyday were from modest backgrounds, but it doesn't follow that the decline in social mobility since the 1950s and 60s isn't due to the decimation of grammars. It's perfectly possible that while grammars didn't do much to advance social mobility, they nevertheless did more than comprehensives – a theory that's borne out by several research studies. For instance, a famous study was carried out in 2005 by three researchers at the LSE for the Sutton Trust in which a group of children born in 1958 were compared to a group born in 1970. They found that when it comes to inter-generational mobility, the cohort born in 1970 fared significantly worse than the cohort born in 1958 – and at least one of the researchers, Professor Stephen Machin, attributed this to the closure of grammar schools. That verdict was echoed by David Byrne, professor of sociology at Durham University. In a letter to the Guardian in 2008, he wrote: "The harsh reality is that in the bad old days of the 11-plus there was more social mobility than there is now."
This positive view of grammars has been challenged by Vicki Boliver, a sociology lecturer at Bath Spa University, and Adam Swift, a politics lecturer at Oxford. In a paper for the British Journal of Sociology published last year, they argue that the gains made by children from low-income backgrounds at grammars were cancelled out by the losses experienced by similarly disadvantaged children at secondary moderns. If you compare the two-tier state education system we had in the 1950s with the broadly comprehensive system we have today, there's no evidence that children from deprived backgrounds fared better in the old system.
However, while they dispute that the introduction of comprehensives has had a negative impact on the overall level of social mobility, they acknowledge that grammars were more likely to foster bottom-to-top mobility: "The effect of grammar schools is specifically to increase somewhat the extent of the mobility experienced by those who do move up."
A variation of this argument was made recently by the journalist Daniel Knowles who said he had reservations about the creation of new grammar schools because the benefit to the bright, working class children lucky enough to attend them would be offset by the cost that less bright children at neighbouring comprehensives would pay as a result of not being taught alongside them.
The interesting thing about this point is that it shifts the debate away from a dispute about evidence and towards a choice between two competing sets of values. If we accept that bright children from deprived backgrounds are more likely to excel in grammar schools – and I think that's indisputable – and we also accept that less bright children in neighbouring schools will suffer as a result of not being taught alongside them – again, hard to dispute – the question is whether that's a price worth paying?
The choice we're faced with is not between more or less social mobility, but between two different patterns of mobility: a reasonable amount of modest mobility in a system characterised by universal comprehensive provision versus a higher level of bottom-to-top mobility offset by lower levels of modest mobility in a system that includes an element of selection.
To my mind, it's pretty clear that the latter is preferable. Why? Because everyone gains in a society when the most gifted are able to rise to the top. A brilliant child born on a council estate is less likely to discover a cure for cancer if he or she attends the local community school than if he or she attends a grammar. The classmates they might have had at the community school may suffer a little if they're not being taught alongside them; but it's nothing compared to the suffering they could alleviate by finding a cure for cancer.
This was a point well made by Alison Pearson, who put flesh on the bones of my imaginary child: "In BBC4's The Grammar School: A Secret History, Michael Portillo, the son of a Spanish immigrant, recalled a reunion at his alma mater, the fiercely competitive Harrow County School for Boys. Sadly, one old boy was unable to attend, but at least he had a good excuse. Paul Nurse was in Sweden collecting the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Raised in Wembley by his grandparents – granddad was a mechanic at the Heinz factory, nanna a cleaner – Sir Paul is a prime example of what selective education can do for a child's life chances. Is there a small boy in 2012 living in a poor home who is going to grow up to be President of the Royal Society and a Nobel Laureate? Without a grammar school education to drive him on and make him take those difficult science A levels, there's not a hope in hell."
She's exaggerating, of course. Some products of comprehensive schools do go on to become research scientists, believe it or not. It's possible for schools with mixed ability intakes to raise their pupils' average level of attainment while, at the same time, pushing the most able to achieve outstanding results – and that's precisely what we're trying to do at the West London Free School. If Nicky Morgan, or whoever the next Education Secretary is, made it possible for existing free schools to become selective, I don't think we'd move to change the admissions policy of our school. We're engaged in an effort to see what's possible to achieve with an all-ability group of children – we're trying to re-invent the comprehensive. But that doesn't mean I'm against the creation of more grammar schools.
I don't think the argument turns on what impact more grammars are likely to have on social mobility – or even the pattern of mobility that's likely to result. For me, it comes down to the right of parents to educate their children as they see fit. That doesn't mean I think anything goes. There are some things that all taxpayer-funded schools should teach. But provided schools meet these basic standards, the state should not be allowed to interfere. That means allowing all kinds of schools to flourish. If a parent on a modest income with an exceptionally bright child wants to give that child the best possible start in life by sending him or her to an academically selective school, they should be allowed to do so. It shouldn't be an opportunity that only rich parents can secure for their children.
The problem with most critics of grammar schools is that they want to treat children as commodities that the state is entitled to move around to maximise social utility. Bright children, they believe, should be placed in schools where they're likely to have the most positive impact on other children, rather than schools where they're most likely to benefit themselves. In my view, the state should have no such power and as far as possible the wishes of parents should always come first.