Dead Men Left

Monday, August 01, 2005

Nick Cohen: he passed his eleven plus

It's good to see things haven't changed too much. Here's Nick Cohen, applying lefty gloss to right-wing idiocy:

That Britain is becoming an aristocracy of wealth is undeniable. The simplest measure was devised by Jo Blandon and her colleagues at the London School of Economics. You might assume that a child born in 1958, when Harold Macmillan ran the country and stuffed his cabinet with dukes, would have been far more hamstrung by his class origins than a child born at the end of the swinging Sixties in 1970. Not a bit of it. The LSE found that on average a boy born to a well-to-do family in 1958 earned 17.5 per cent more than a boy born to a family on half the income. The son of an equivalent Mr and Mrs Moneybags born 1970 will be earning today 25 per cent more than his contemporary from the wrong side of the tracks. Far from decreasing, class advantage has grown.

Ok so far. Written about it myself, donchaknow, under an even more foolish pseudonym. (Blogged about it here.) He's also correct to point out that the expansion of higher education has also expanded inequalities in education: new university places have been allocated disproportionately to the children of the rich, thanks to the significant financial barriers to entry poorer households face. Onwards:

In practice everyone knows that the grammar schools, which at least selected by ability, have been replaced with private and comprehensive schools which select by parental wealth. If you are rich and have a bright child, he will go private and although he will have to pass exams, he won't face competition from children whose parents can't afford the fees. If you are rich and have a dunce, you select by house price and move into the catchment area of a good school or get your nanny to drive your child to a good school in another borough or lie to vicars and send your child to a good church school. Again, you know your child won't face competition from brighter children whose parents can't afford to buy houses in the right area or don't have the knowledge to play the system. The result is that in the inner cities we don't have comprehensives but a universal system of secondary moderns.

Also correct. Alas, Cohen then ruins everything with a stirring call for a return to grammar schools. It's a cunning rhetorical trick, this, to lead his readers down a familiar left-liberal path - before sharply lurching over to the right when their attention starts to wander.

Grammar schools were, it is true, introduced by a Labour government after 1947 as a means of improving social mobility: it was hoped that children could be accurately sorted, at age 11, into those with an academic bent, and those without, irrespective of their upbringing. In the more idealistic imaginings of the scheme's left-wing promoters, it was believed that no great distinction would be made between those going to the grammar school, and those attending the secondary modern: the distinction would simply reflect different types of (presumably innate) abilities.

It was a foolish idea back then; to repeat the same arguments, nearly sixty years later, and after their foolishness have been revealed, requires a vigorous stupidity. Given the way society rewards certain kinds of work, it was inevitable that a huge gulf would grow between those "passing" the 11-plus exam and learning Latin at the grammar school, and those "failing" and being herded into woodwork at the secondary modern. Given the laziness of employers when selecting employees, it was inevitable that a failure at age eleven would act, quite unfairly, as a permanent mark of ability. Given the wherewithal of some parents to pay for - and immediately perceive the advantages of - extra tuition, it was equally inevitable that the system would be biased in favour of wealth.

(Incidentally, I failed my eleven plus. I had the misfortune to end up moving, aged eleven, into one of the few counties that still insisted on running a grammar school system; I sat the exam, and ended up at the local comprehensive. The after-effects weren't nearly as bad as detailed above, however, since most places do not run the eleven-plus, and so it can't act as any sort of signal in later life. "It never did me any harm," etc, and presumably neither did it hurt the grammar-school swot Cohen. The tantalising possibility of attending what was considered to be an excellent school did, however, mean that pushy middle-class parents tutored their kids to pass the exam; some real dopes ended up at the grammar school as a result, something that pleased me at the time.)

In other words, the situation was all but identical to that which exists now, with the added disadvantage that, whilst no-one now will particularly care about which school I went to, not attending a grammar school could be a life-long stigma.

There is a more fundamental issue, however. Education produces a return for the individual who received it: you will earn more, on average, as a result of having been educated. The more education you receive, the more - on average - you will earn. (Until you start doing a PhD, of course, at which point the returns to your further education become negative. Anyway.) These returns are not evenly distributed: importantly, they are biased in favour of income: if you are rich, education will produce higher returns than if you are poor. In recent years, the gap between the returns to education for the richest, and the returns to the poorest - after years of shrinking - has started to open up again. (See, for example, this study, from the Centre for the Economics of Education - fig 2.4, PDF file.) In other words, the education system exacerbates an existing inequality.

What this suggests is that to focus, like Cohen, on social mobility alone is redundant, since the institutions designed to break down social barriers are, in fact, reinforcing them. We have to see the problem of social mobility as tied to the problem of social equality more generally. We are forced back to the old issue of redistribution. Dodging this entirely, Cohen lurches over to the right.