The debate continues but expansion put on the backburner


Many grassroots Tories still see grammar schools as an article of meritocratic faith, offering talented children from modest backgrounds the chance, perhaps the only real chance, of a first-class education and a ladder out if deprivation. There are 164 remaining state grammar schools (out of just over 4,000  state  secondary schools) dotted around about 20 local authorities. Only a few, including Kent, retain a completely selective system. Selection is based on an 11+ plus exam. Mary Ann Sieghart writing in the Independent a while back said …’if you are bright but poor and you live in Kent, Essex, Buckinghamshire or Northern Ireland, your parentage doesn’t have to dictate your progress. You have nearly the same chance of becoming a cabinet minister, a judge, a newspaper editor or a top rower as your privately educated neighbour. Why is that? Because these areas still have grammar schools, those turbo-chargers of social mobility.’

The head of Ofsted has just accused grammar schools of being “stuffed full” of middle-class children and of failing to increase social mobility.

“Grammar schools are stuffed full of middle-class kids. A tiny percentage are on free school meals: 3 per cent. That is a nonsense,” the Ofsted head told The Observer.

“Anyone who thinks grammar schools are going to increase social mobility needs to look at those figures. I don’t think they work.

“The fact of the matter is that there will be calls for a return to the grammar school system. Well, look what is happening at the moment.

“Northern Ireland has a selective system and they did worse than us in the [international comparison] table.

“The grammar schools might do well with 10% of the school population, but everyone else does really badly. What we have to do is make sure all schools do well in the areas in which they are located.”

Opponents of grammar schools have long claimed that disadvantaged pupils and those on FSM , and with SEN, are badly underrepresented, that rich parents ensure that they buy places through investing in private  tuition to give their children an unfair advantage at the test, and that, if you drill down into the academic results of grammar schools,  they are not quite as good   as they might at first seem, particularly if you use added value  measurements . Fiona Millar, from the group Comprehensive Future, told BBC 4s World this weekend  “The problem is that doing the [11+] tests is accompanied by a very expensive private tuition industry,”

The debate on Grammars has been rekindled  because last week the  plan for a “satellite” grammar school in Kent, which  was hatched because Sevenoaks was the only area of the county not to have a grammar school, was  rejected by Michael Gove, the Secretary of State. Campaigners had high hopes that he would approve the proposal and it would be the first of many.

The two applications by existing grammar schools – Weald of Kent and Invicta in Maidstone –were turned down by the Department for Education on the grounds that they did not constitute an expansion but would create a new school. One of the main arguments used was that the selective “satellite” was to be co-educational while both the proposers were single-sex schools. Under existing legislation, it is illegal to set up a new selective state school, but any good school – including a grammar school – can expand.(providing it satisfies local planning laws etc)

DfE officials though say the door is still open for an alternative proposal which can convince them it would expand an existing school. One option would be to persuade a co-educational grammar school to put in a bid. Sir Michael’s comments were criticised by David Davies, a Conservative MP and former grammar school pupil, who said many working-class children “got on through having access to grammar schools”.

Graham Brady, who resigned as a party spokesman in protest at Prime Minister David Cameron’s opposition to new grammar schools, said Sir Michael would do better to focus on the still large number of “very bad schools”.

Chris Cook, when he was education correspondent at the FT, examined recent data   and found that on average, poor children do markedly (GCSE results) worse in Kent than in the rest of the country. Kent is also less socially mobile than the rest of England – and much less mobile than London. He also found that ‘ A poor child in Kent, using the usual definition of a child eligible for free school meals, has a 55 per cent chance of getting results that put it in the bottom fifth of results- that means results weaker than around 3 Cs at GCSE. To look at the other end of the spectrum, only 4 per cent of FSM-eligible children in Kent get results in the top fifth nationally – that means the equivalent of eight As. If Kent were overcoming disadvantage totally, this would approach 20 per cent.’  To cut to the quick, Cooks main point t was that Anne Marie Sieghart was plain wrong in suggesting that Grammars were engines of social mobility.’

Improving social mobility is very much on the governments agenda, but they are largely at a loss to work out how to improve social mobility. With few disadvantaged  pupils getting good,  timely  careers advice from independent professionals,  and little integrated  employer engagement with schools it seems that not much   will change in the near future.

Doubtless the arguments over grammars  will continue. But grammar schools are unlikely to develop a larger footprint on the English schools landscape any time soon.



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