Theresa May has announced that comprehensive schools will in future be able to select their pupils based on their ability.
This will, in effect, create new grammar schools – possibly hundreds of them. It destroys, at a stroke the central tenet of previous governments which allowed existing grammars to continue but banned new ones from being set up. Some say this will transform education for the better and return us to the good old days when children were able to move up the social ladder whatever their status. Others say it will prove disastrous: the middle class will benefit and the poor will suffer.
The details of Mrs May’s plans are still sketchy, but it is generally agreed that they amount to the most radical reform of the education system in half a century. They will affect faith schools as well. The present rules bar faith schools from selecting more than half of their intake on the basis of religion. Mrs May thinks that has failed and there will be no limit. That is controversial enough, but it’s the return of grammar schools that is really setting the cat among the educational pigeons.
There seems no question of going back to the days when every child in the state system sat an exam at the age of eleven and the result of that exam determined whether you went to a grammar school or a secondary modern. The higher your marks, the better the school. There is no doubt that many children did benefit from that system. I was one of them. I was born into a poor working class family and, although my parents had no real education to speak of, they knew it mattered. They made us do our homework and my siblings and I all got into a grammar school. In my case it meant I was able to get a job (at the age of fifteen) on my local newspaper. But my closest friend, who lived a few doors up from me, failed the eleven-plus, went to a dire secondary modern school and spent his life working as a labourer. So there were winners and losers. But those were the days before comprehensives and this is where it gets a little more complicated.
It was Tony Blair who outlawed the creation of new grammar schools in 1998. Nobody doubts that there are many first-rate comprehensives and they are not all, to use the notorious phrase coined by Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell, “bog standard “. But Mrs May (who herself went to a grammar school) believes the system is unfair because it allows selection by house price. The richest can afford the houses nearest to the best schools. She has a point. A recent survey of house prices show a huge difference in the cost of a house near good school.
She wants to turn the system into an engine of social mobility. She said in her speech: “We care going to build a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged view. A fundamental part of that I having schools that give every child the best start in life regardless of their background. And she directly challenged the system favoured by her predecessor, David Cameron when she added: “For too long we have tolerated a system that contains an arbitrary rule preventing selective schools being established – sacrificing children’s potential because of dogma and ideology”. Selection by wealth, she said, is “simply unfair”.
What is not clear is how many selective schools there might be at the end of this revolution. There are about 3,400 secondary schools in England and one Downing Street source has said hundreds could become selective. It would depend on whether there was the appetite to go down that route in any given community. But there’s no question, it seems, of every school in one area becoming selective. Nor is it clear what parameters would be set. All will be revealed in a Green Paper – a government document that is published for consultation by MPs before a White Paper which might (or might not) become law. It’s worth noting at this point that Mrs May cannot be sure of getting all this through Parliament. She might have problems in the House of Commons. She will certainly have problems in the Lords, many of whose members will point out that these measures were not foreshadowed in the Conservatives’ election manifesto so they’d be entitled to kick it out.
Mrs May will have to demonstrate that it’s not only middle class areas who’d benefit from the new grammars. She will doubtless point to research which shows how unbalanced the best schools are in their intake. In the top comprehensives only 7.6 per cent of pupils are entitled to free school meals yet the average is more than double that. And in grammar schools it is only 3 per cent. The new grammars would be forced to take a specified proportion of the poorest children and they would also have to take various measures to make sure younger children from the poorest areas would be helped to pass the entry exams.
The response to all this from those who oppose her plans is, in effect, to say something along the lines of: we’ve tried selection before and it’s fine if you’re rich, but not if you’re poor.
Lewis Iwu, the director of the Fair Education Alliance says there is a consensus that more selective schools (and by implication more secondary moderns) will damage our education system. He says even if it guaranteed the selection of a minimum number of the poorest pupils, the evidence still suggests that those left behind would perform worse than they would have in a comprehensive. It is possible, he says, to give poor children a “fair shot at life” with the need for grammars. He points to initiatives such as Teach First, a charity which fast-tracks enthusiastic graduates into teaching and helps schools that struggle to attract decent teachers.
Patricia Hollis, a Labour member of the House of Lords, warns that each new grammar school would cream off the most academically able children in a given area and that would turn the comprehensives into secondary moderns, which is where most children would end up. Baroness Hollis drew on her own experience in a letter to The Times: “I went to a rural grammar school; my children went to the local state comprehensive. One went on to Cambridge, the other to Edinburgh, both getting first-class degrees. They managed this because their school was genuinely comprehensive, had strong leadership and set its children by ability – so effectively ran “grammar school” streams by subject within a comprehensive setting”.
So where do you stand? What sort of school did you go to and how has it affected your life? Is it time to bring back the grammars in the hope that they will enable more of the poorest to move up the social ladder or should we concentrate on making the comprehensives rather less “bog standard”? Or maybe we should just leave things as they are.
Let us know your views.