What about evidence informed policy?

Ryan Shorthouse, who heads the  Tory think tank   ‘Bright Blue’ thinks that expanding grammar schools would be a big mistake putting politics(or ideology) before evidence.  Sam Freedman, formerly an adviser to Michael Gove,  with a research pedigree, now working for Teach First, says  that there is not a jot of evidence that Grammar schools CAN   improve social mobility, which seems to be the main justification for the possible   move, in Tory ranks at least.

Freedmans concerns are broader though.  Having worked in DFE he understands the amount of political capital, time and resource,  that will  have to be  used up  to seek to push expansion through, and  with no guarantee of success. Meanwhile other reforms that have more potential impact on pupil outcomes may be put on the back burner and not be given  crucial attention and traction..

Tory Neil Carmichael,  Chair of the influential Education Select Committee, has also  just pitched in to the debate,  warning that efforts to re-establish grammar schools would be a “distraction” from improving the quality of education for all.  He said “What we need to be doing is ensuring that schools that are not doing terribly well improve, and grammar schools are a distraction to that central purpose. One of the messages from the Brexit vote was that we are leaving too many people behind. Grammar schools may help some people but they also leave more people behind.”

Research  by Anna  Vignoles and others  for the Sutton Trust  in 2013  found that less than 3% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals –  an important indicator of social deprivation .The average proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals in selective areas is 18%, and its higher on average in other areas where grammar schools are located.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies  research found:

‘Our key conclusion is that there is a substantial difference in the likelihood of a child who is eligible for free school meals enrolling in a grammar school as compared with a similar child who is not eligible for FSM. This remains true even if we allow for the fact that FSM children have lower levels of prior attainment. In other words, amongst high achievers, those who are eligible for FSM or who live in poorer neighbourhoods are significantly less likely to go to a grammar school. For example, in selective local authorities, two-thirds of children who achieve level 5 in both English and maths at Key Stage 2 who are not eligible for free school meals go to a grammar school, compared with 40% of similarly high-achieving children who are eligible for free school meals. This is a substantial gap.’

Research from CMPO at  Bristol University (April 2006) found ‘the substantive under representation of poorer and special needs children in grammar schools. ‘  It also found  that  ‘only 32% of high ability children eligible for free school meals (FSM) attend grammar schools compared with 60% of non-FSM pupils’.

If social mobility and improving the outcomes of the most disadvantaged pupils are the reason for refocusing on grammar schools (and therefore further structural reforms) the evidence really  isn’t there to back it.

Some Grammar schools have also been challenged on the amount of value added they offer, given  the quality of their intakes. In other words some of their pupils should be making more progress and achieve  better end qualifications than they do, given their performance when they enter the school. In the vernacular of Ministers  some Grammars, rather too many,  are “coasting”

Under a 1998 law, the number of selective state schools is fixed and any other new or existing state schools cannot use academic criteria for admission. But existing grammar schools are allowed to expand.

To allow brand new Grammars to start up would require Primary legislation. Given that some Tories, the Labour party and Lib Dems oppose Grammar expansion, the arithmetic is against getting such legislation through the Commons . And that’s without  factoring in the Lords where there will be a majority against new grammar schools (Labour,Lib Dem Peers many cross benchers and some Tories  would oppose) guaranteeing  significant delays   .Which leaves the  expansion option. Existing grammars expanding on their existing site, or into an annexe possibly  in a different  location  (but still part of the same school). This might work, but would carry big  risks and take time . And couldnt be done quickly at scale. And this is a government with a slender majority, aiming to be more inclusive and with much on its plate.  Its probably better to stick with evidence informed policy.

One  other  legislative option though, which is possible, given that a stand alone  Bill focused on enabling new Grammars wont get through Parliament, is to  insert a permissive  clause into the up coming Education for All Bill,  and then  whip Tory backbenchers into line.  Certainly possible, but also risky .

It is hard to see how Ministers would be prepared to launch such a high risk strategy with few ,if any ,  political  or educational returns.   But we live in strange political times in which its unsafe to make many or indeed   any predictions.  But, then again, maybe there is some kite flying going on here , to test reactions? If so, the message is  surely pretty  clear.  Its High risk , with very  limited returns.  Its probably better to make sure current reforms can bed in,  and to   address  the system wide  shortage of high quality leaders, and to focus more on raising the quality of teachers and teaching, key performance  drivers.

Entry into Grammar Schools in England- Jonathan Cribb, Institute for Fiscal Studies; Luke Sibieta, Institute for Fiscal Studies,

Anna Vignoles, University of Cambridge









  1. Perhaps you can ask Sam Freedman, with his extensive academic, research and political experience to prove the OECD’s claim, supported by Mr Gove, that a country’s education system can be summed up in 3 digits. Given that the OECD is extensively cited by opponents of grammars, the proof should help seal the argument against selective systems.
    If it is available, the OECD proof should be produced, if not, OECD claims must be treated with appropriate scepticism. The ball is in Sam Freedman’s court. After all Michael Gove described Andreas Schleicher as ‘the father of more revolutions than any German since Karl Marx’ Give Sam a push – ask him what the DfE did with the correspondence on Holder’s axioms?

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