Public support for grammar schools
Yesterday, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education was photographed carrying a memo seeming to suggest that Number 10 – in conjunction with the DfE – is seeking to bring back some kind of grammar school programme. As expected, then, the story filled the airwaves and prompted the kind of animated debate seemingly reserved only for the issue of grammar schools. But our job here at Polling Digest isn’t to debate the arguments, it’s to analyse public opinion; thankfully, therefore, two polls about the potential opening of grammar schools were released in the past few weeks. Here are our top 4 conclusions from the latest YouGov and BMG polls on grammars:
1. People generally support grammar schools. YouGov’s poll, conducted on 11th and 12th August, asked respondents to assign their support to one of 3 options. First, that more grammar schools should be opened; second, that existing ones should remain open but no more built; and third, that all current grammar schools should be opened up to all children of all abilities. 38% of voters agreed that more should be opened, while 23% said they should be turned into mixed-ability schools and 17% said more grammar schools shouldn’t be opened but current ones protected. Thus, against the ‘closing’ option, the ‘more grammar schools’ side has a lead of 21 points, while it has a 15-point over the ‘don’t open but don’t close’ option.
2. Support is fairly well spread across England. While support for closing grammars is pretty much even across the country (ranging from 21% in London to 24% in the North and Midlands) and support for the middle-way option of keeping grammars but not opening more is pretty well steady in the 16-17% range (with a spike in London at 22%), support for opening more schools is both high and reasonably steady. In London, 36% of voters wanted more grammar schools opened, while 42% of voters in the rest of the south supported the policy. And while slightly lower, backing for new grammars in the Midlands (38%) and North (35%) is significantly higher than backing for the other options.
3. People overwhelmingly agree that grammar schools help academic success and increase social mobility. BMG’s research consisted of presenting respondents with four arguments; two in favour of grammar schools, and two against. The two arguments made in favour of grammar schools were that they increase academic success and boost social mobility. Respondents overwhelmingly agreed with these arguments. 60% of the totality of voters agreed that grammar schools allow children from less well-off backgrounds to achieve greater academic success, while only 13% disagreed, giving grammar schools a 47-point lead. What’s more, this argument enjoyed high support across all social grades, voting intention groups, ages and income brackets. The argument that grammar schools improve social mobility also had a high polling lead, albeit one lower than the first argument. It had a 37-point lead among all voters (51% in favour versus 14% against), with support – again – from all voting intention categories, income brackets, ages, and social grades.
4. But when counterarguments are made, support is more mixed – and sometimes turns to opposition. Along with the two arguments made in favour of grammar schools, two more were presented by BMG to voters. The first was that grammar schools waste the talents of less academically gifted children and the second was that they encourage elitism in society. This first argument against grammar schools was rejected by voters – 24% agreed and 30% disagreed. However, some categories voters agreed with the concern: voter groups up to the age of 45 all agreed to varying degrees with the counterargument, for example. The second counterargument, however, was more successful in persuading voters. 34% of all the voters polled agreed that grammar schools encourage elitism, with 26% disagreeing, giving the argument an 8-point victory. There were, though, groups of voters who disagreed: age categories above 55 were not convinced that grammars encourage elitism, and neither were people who voted for the Conservatives or UKIP at the last general election.
The basic conclusion from the recent polling data is that grammar schools generally receive more support in the polls than proposals to stop building grammar schools or close them down. However, it is certainly interesting to note that public opinion is quite nuanced; when people were confronted with two counterarguments to grammar schools, support was in some cases strong. What does this mean for the overall stance of public opinion? It could mean two things: first, it could suggest that public opinion is malleable and that if parties opposed to new grammar schools exploit that malleability, the voters may be turned away from grammar schools. Alternatively, though, it could suggest that while voters are clearly aware of the counterarguments to grammar schools – and have some degree of affinity with them – this is already baked in to the polling numbers; in other words, that voters know the problems with grammar schools but feel overall that grammar schools should still be opened.