The Government is heading rapidly down a cul de sac in its policy to increase selection in the maintained sector. Either it will have to execute a U turn (not unheard of-think, Nicky Morgan) or it will come to a grinding halt , using its scarce resources and haemorrhaging political capital, to prop up a policy that cannot possibly deliver the outcomes it wants-a significant number of new, good school places for ‘ordinary working families’ and increased social mobility.
The Grammar school model is currently demonstrably failing to help the most disadvantaged pupils and is no engine of social mobility. Justine Greening has accepted as much, and now talks about the need for a ‘new model ‘for Grammar schools , conceding past failures of Grammars to cater for the less affluent.
Selective schools continue to be dominated by the most affluent. Over half of pupils in selective schools are in families with income above the national median and fewer than one in ten are eligible for the Pupil Premium. Ironically one enduring education success of this and the previous government, has been the Pupil Premium ,which specifically targets the most disadvantaged cohort with extra per capita funding . Grammars really haven’t played any significant part in this success story.
The government has shifted its attention now to what it calls ordinary working families. Although there is no official definition of an ordinary working family, the government describes students fitting into the category as those who are not entitled to pupil premium, but who come from families earning “modest” or below median incomes.The Education Policy Institute tells us that Department for Education’s definition of the OWF group occupies the centre of the income distribution of children in maintained schools.’ Crucially, though , the child of the OWF currently ‘experiences attainment and progress outcomes that are above average’.
Seeking to change that model by incentivising, or compelling, Grammars to take more pupils from these ordinary working families presents a huge new practical challenge. . How do you hold schools to account ? Do you introduce a quota system? Do you dump the eleven plus in favour of another test? Indeed, can you design a new tutor -proof test (unlikely)? Or ,do you lower the pass mark for young people whose families fall below the median income threshold? The Government risks falling between a rock and a hard place here, alienating both the education establishment and grammar schools.
The three bodies that know most about social mobility and its drivers, are the Social Mobility Commission, the Sutton Trust and Teach First . None of these organisations though believe that social mobility, remember the top priority of Justine Greening as Education Secretary, will increase one iota on the back of increased selection. The Sutton Trust believes that Grammars should demonstrate how well they can support the bottom third of pupils, before they roll out increased selection across the system. Greening struggled on the BBC R4 Today Programme, on 13 April ,to name a single expert or institution that supports her policy (to be fair its not her Policy ,its Nick Timothys of N0 10). She couldn’t, because there aren’t any. When NO 10 phoned around those whom it could normally rely on to support its education announcements, on the release of its Green Paper on selection, all ducked their heads below the parapet. They had a quick squint at the evidence, saw the prospect of a car crash, and made their excuses .All these organisations are alarmed too at the shift away from targeting the most disadvantaged cohort, and narrowing the achievement gap, to the group that was called those who are just about managing (JAMs) ,( now called ordinary working families’ (OWFs).
There are many, including key figures who have been broadly supportive of the governments education reforms, who cannot fathom why the government is pursuing such a high risk policy, that is not evidence -based, and has such little prospect of meaningful educational ,or political, returns. .