Possibly but will they help the social mobility agenda?

The appointment of Justine Greening,  along with the appointment of   Nick Timothy as Theresa Mays chief of staff ( he has  backed new selective schools in the past) has  increased speculation that Theresa May will allow significant expansion in grammar schools. (Selective state schools).

Asked by Andrew Marr over the weekend if  she was “completely closed-minded” to the idea (of new grammar schools) , Ms Greening said : “I think that the education debate on grammar schools has been going for a very long time, but I also recognise that the landscape in which it takes place has changed fundamentally. I think we need to be able to move this debate on and look at things as they are today, and maybe step away from a more old-fashioned debate around grammar schools and work out where they fit in today’s landscape.” That doesn’t amount to a commitment to expand grammars ,but it clearly implies that expansion is not ruled out.  The new landscape she talks about is the variety of different types of schools.

Currently there is a general prohibition against academic selection in (most) state schools .And a 1998 Law prevents the establishment of any new Grammar schools. However, existing Grammar schools can expand, providing that any expansion onto a new site is a change to an existing school and not a new school. Which is why the anti-grammar school lobby were very   animated about developments in Sevenoaks, Kent, where an existing Grammar school  sought  to open a satellite,  some distance away.

Yes, they know that the law doesn’t allow for the expansion of grammar schools, and for this to happen there needs to be new legislation-which will need a majority in Parliament.  (The Tories only  have a slender majority) But they suspect that the pro-grammar lobby will  seek to use the satellite route to expand the programme elsewhere with political cover from the government .

Grammar schools, secondary modern schools and technical schools formed what was known as the tripartite system, which arose from the interpretation of the Education Act 1944  .Grammar schools provided admission to children on the basis of their ability and offered an academic education. Selection was usually made at the end of primary school in the form of the ‘11 plus’ examination. Secondary moderns provided a more general education with an emphasis on more practical subjects. Technical schools provided a more general education but with a focus on technical subjects.

There are currently 163 grammar schools in England with a total number of 163,000 pupils. This comprises around  5% of the total number of pupils in England. Ten local authorities are classified by the Department for Education as having a wholly selective system and a further 26 have at least one grammar school in their area. The majority are concentrated in Kent (32), Lincolnshire (15) and Buckinghamshire (13).

Not all Tories, by any means, support selection, or the expansion of Grammar schools. But it is significant that two influential Tories,  Graham Brady ,who chairs the influential 1922 committee,  and Boris Johnson,  now Foreign Secretary  have long   made the case for more Grammars.  Theresa May was also relaxed  about the idea of a  local grammar school  expanding , creating a new  and very distant  annexe. Around 100 Tory  MPs are thought to support expansion.

Opponents of Grammar schools are against selection in the state system. They believe that they may offer social mobility to a few, but its only the few. They may be fine institutions for those  fortunate  enough to attend them. But the real problem is the provision for those who fail to gain a place. And a majority of pupils  who enter fail the selection exam. Selective schools tend to cream skim the best pupils,  making it harder for those who remain behind

What about the selection process?. Although the 11 plus exam is supposed to measure potential, there are plenty of private tutors  who boast that they can get just about anyone to pass the 11 plus  providing they put in or ‘invest’  the extra hours (and their parents pay for it). So this means, in practice, that middle class parents, with a decent income, are more likely to get their child into a grammar school than parents from a disadvantaged community. Hence the charge that Grammars are colonized by the middle classes.

If you can tutor for the exam, it rather suggests that it is not simply about measuring potential. And there appears to be no reliable evidence to suggest, in any case ,that 11 is the best age to measure a child’s potential. Children develop educationally  at different paces.

But one of the most compelling arguments against grammar schools is that successive governments have seen the holy grail of education in improving the lot of the most disadvantaged pupils and narrowing the achievement gap between them and their peers. So this should be the benchmark against which Grammars are measured. Disadvantaged pupils are broadly those defined as eligible for free school meals. But in 2014, the proportion of grammar school pupils eligible for free school meals was 2.7% but 15.7% across all types of schools.

Remember that  Education Minister Lord Nash, served a warning to grammar schools, as recently as   July 2014 ,when he stated:

“The Government is committed to closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. Grammar schools and the highest performing non-selective schools currently have some of the lowest representations of children eligible for free school meals in England. We want to encourage all high performing schools, including grammar schools to do more to attract and support disadvantaged children.”


When Chris Cook, a former Tory ministerial adviser (now with the BBC), was the FTs education correspondent he did some number crunching to find out how poor children fared in areas that had selective education. His verdict  was unequivocal  -poor children do dramatically worse in selective areas. He wrote on 28 January 2013 ‘If you plot how well children do on average by household deprivation for selective areas and for the rest of the country, you can see that the net effect of grammar schools is to disadvantage poor children and help the rich.’

Research seems to point to Grammar schools contributing to rather than easing social inequality and leading  to a widening of the income gap between rich and poor. A 2013 study by academics from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the University of Cambridge and York University found that more than four times as many of the 22,000 Year Seven entrants into grammar schools each year were likely to come from private schools, compared with those on free school meals.

Laura McInerney,  editor of Schools Week , reminded  us this week  that  in 2013  in Kent and Medway, the largest selective area,  children living in the poorest parts of the county had a less than 10% chance of getting into a grammar. Children in the richest neighbourhoods had a 50% chance.

Ryan Shorthouse, Director of Bright Blue (a Conservative oriented think tank)  says  ‘The evidence shows that grammar schools are not engines of social mobility. Fewer than 3 per cent of entrants into grammar schools in selective regions in England are eligible for free school meals – a proxy for poverty – despite these children making up 18 per cent of all the population in those regions’ 

In 2014 Professor Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol, said:“Selective schooling systems sort pupils based on their ability, and schools with high-ability pupils are more likely to attract and retain high-quality teaching staff. This puts pupils who miss out on a grammar school place at an immediate disadvantage. In addition they will be part of lower-ability peer groups, which also affects their chances of succeeding at school,”  His research  also revealed that  grammar schools pupils have greater earning power when they left school compared to those in non-selective schools.

So, if this is the case, are Ministers really going to agree that the expansion of Grammar schools is the best way to further social mobility and  narrow the achievement gap?

That doesn’t mean that some satellites won’t be approved. Nor does it mean that Grammar schools that exist are not safe.  They clearly are under this administration. But one has to wonder whether its good politics to open a new front in education reform while a raft of new reforms are still bedding in, with increased academisation, curriculum reforms, and a new accountability framework .  Is it wise to yet again focus on structural changes,  which will be heavily contested by most in the education establishment, including all the teaching unions? Surely its better and more productive to make sure  the current  on-going reforms work, and there is more of a focus on system- wide leadership and raising the quality of teachers and teaching, as these are the variables that have most impact on student outcomes. ? If Grammars are the answer one has to wonder –what is the question?  If the question is how best do we improve equity and social mobility in the system  and narrow the achievement gap between  the most disadvantaged and mainstream pupils then there is no evidence that grammars can do this. And , remember, Greening was  educated in a comprehensive school and sees social mobility as a priority.



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