A better, but overlong, title for this would be “Why grammar schools don’t work for all and why ‘grammar schools for all’ (probably) won’t work”.

At the birth of the comprehensive school movement, prime minster Harold Wilson made his well-known rallying cry, “Grammar schools for all’! Every child, no matter their background, or academic potential could go to a school which would share the values of the selective Grammar schools. It was a lovely idea and, as we all know, it failed to materialise. The reality, for very many children, became secondary moderns for all. Of course Wilson was well-intentioned; of course he can’t be blamed for the slide into child-centred ideology; of course he had no way of foreseeing the nightmare that was to come. But he was an optimist, and an unscrupulous one at that.

In particular, it would be unfair to blame Wilson for failing to foresee the formulation of group socialisation theory. Judith Rich Harris was an academic outsider who was able to say the unsayable and point out that parenting has practically no effect on how children turn out. For a long time we’ve known that pretty much all human characteristics are roughly 50% heritable. That is to say, biologically determined by our parents’ genes. That leaves another 50% to be accounted for by the environment and, until Harris, the environment was synonymous with the nurture provided by our parents. Her contribution to developmental psychology was to observe that culture is primarily transmitted between peers and that the missing 50% could, almost in its entirety, be attributed to what she dubbed group socialisation. I won’t go into the elegant trail of evidence she offered up here, but I would point you to her fantastically well-researched and very readable book, The Nurture Assumption.

What’s all this got to do with grammar schools? Well, group socialisation theory predicts that the most important variable for determining children’s educational success is the peer culture at their school. In a selective school, parents go to some trouble to make sure their children pass a demanding entrance exam and, although some people don’t want to admit it, grammar schools serve largely homogenous populations of parents with similar socioeconomic status. Parents’ values are handed down to children whilst they’re at home and continue to hold sway as long as these are values shared by a critical mass on the child’s peer group. If a small minority of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds attend the school, they will take on the values shared by their peers and abandon those of their parents. They’ll start to speak differently – at least whilst at school – and, because the school is academically selective, they’re likely to take on beliefs about the value of hard work and be increasingly motivated by academic achievement.

But, if the minority group is large enough – how large Harris admits she doesn’t know but speculates it could be as few as 3 or 4 – then children will identify with those most like themselves and be socialised in opposition to the dominant group. Differences between groups tend to exaggerate over time as they become increasingly distinct. Harris reckons that “no circle is more vicious than the one having to do with intelligence.” (247)  The heritability of intelligence actually increase over time from about 50% to as much as 80%; the cleverer you are, the better the choices you’re likely to make, the more likely you are to get cleverer still. Group contrast effects can have an indirect but profound effect on the heritability of IQ. If the group values hard work and good behaviour, individuals within the group will learn more; if the group thinks school is for geeks and trying hard is for losers, individuals within the group will learn less. “What starts as a different attitude to schoolwork might well end up as a difference in average IQ.” (248)

The stereotypes espoused by a group can have a lasting influence on group members. If the group values hard work then it becomes important to identify as a hard worker. If our group values mucking about and being defiant, then that’s how we’re likely to identify. When we find ourselves in situations where we’re torn between two sets of values, we experience what Claude Steele dubbed ‘stereotype threat‘. Steele found that all you had to do to make African-American students perform worse on a test was to give them a pre-test questionnaire which included a question about race. Simply being reminded of our group affiliations is enough to trigger the associated stereotypes about who we’re supposed to be.

Grammar schools work for most of their students because gaining status within their peer groups is about being academically successful. This might also explain why children from lower socioeconomic status tend to do worse in grammars; if there are sufficient students from a similar background they’re likely to band together around their own shared values and see themselves as distinct to the majority. Harris explains why it might not work to send a group of students from a shared background to an academically selective school: “They form a group of their own and retain the attitudes and behaviors they brought with them to the school.” (260)

I want to make absolutely clear at this point that this blog is in no way an argument for academic selection. Academic selection might well work for the majority of student who attend grammar schools, but such students would – and do – form like-minded groups with shared values within comprehensive schools. This isn’t really the problem though. The real issue is that the non-selective schools where the children who’ve failed the selection test end up will exaggerate heritable differences in IQ downwards. As Graham Nuthall pointed out, “Ability is the consequence not the cause of what happens in the classroom.” Whenever there is academic selection, children categorise themselves as clever or not-so-clever. Groupness makes us like those in our groups best and instead of feeling low self-esteem at being in the not-so-clever group, children gain self-esteem through gaining status within their group. If the group thinks school is for losers, then they’ll feel better about themselves if they muck about and don’t try. This is the Matthew Effect: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

If we were to initiate a well-intentioned programme of ‘grammar schools for all’ staffed by high achieving teachers teaching a culturally rich academic curriculum our initiative might well fail for the same reason that sending large groups to selective schools might fail; because the idea of groupness hasn’t been addressed. This is not fate, but it is the prediction made by group socialisation theory. If you want schools or classes to be successful you need to address the peer culture. Teachers and school leaders have some real power in this regard. Leaders can do much to change the characteristics of the group and, thankfully, leaders do not have to be group members to be successful leader.

Harris points out three ways in which teachers can shape peer culture (245):

  1. By defining group norms. You don’t have to influence every member of a group, you just need to nudge enough of the most influential members. This then generates a kind of ‘herd immunity’ against poor choices and bad behaviour.
  2. By defining the boundaries of the group. We can, to a greater or lesser extent, control who is in and who is out, who is us and who is them. Of course it’s possible for subcultures to form within classes and schools but by engendering strong social norms we can make belonging to the in-group both inclusive and desirable.
  3. By defining the image or the stereotype students have of themselves. If we encourage students to value hard work and disciplined behaviour in each other, then we will have done our job; they will police the social norms themselves.

This is, I think, how successful schools in disadvantaged areas operate. They create an in-group where ‘we’ are different to everyone out there. ‘We’ feel privileged to be in the in-group and appalled at the idea of what it must be like to be a member of the out-group. ‘We’ notice everything that makes us different from ‘them’ and we revel in the differences.

The potentially fatal flaw in the idea of ‘grammar schools for all’ is that there has to be an out-group for this to work. If we look to the way strong positive social norms operate in the classrooms of many east Asian countries then we might find a model that could work across the system, but then again, maybe it would rely too heavily on cultural difference we just wouldn’t be able to replicate. I’m not sure if there’s a way around this problem but to ignore it is to be an unscrupulous optimist. Problems don’t go away just because we don’t think about them.