If May wants a meritocracy, she’s going the wrong way about it
I want a meritocratic society, announced May, and we will achieve it by increasing the diversity of the schools system and allowing more selection.
But the evidence is clear: more school choice doesn’t improve school systems and can increase social segregation (OECD), school systems with greater levels of inclusion in schools have better overall outcomes and less inequality (OECD p455), the earlier selection occurs, the greater the effect of socio-economic background (here) and existing grammar schools generally widen the gap in attainment between rich and poor pupils (FullFact).
May ignored this evidence and managed to avoid answering a reporter’s question about the academic basis for her wide-ranging reforms. That’s because there is none.
The Brexit vote signalled that people want change, she said. And change is what she’s going to deliver. She wants to help ‘ordinary working class people’ and that will be achieved by deciding at age 11 what kind of secondary school children will attend. The ‘brightest among the poor’ would be helped by her intended measures. But May skated over what would happen to the average and below average, whether poor or not, who comprise 75% of England's children. They would receive an education suited to their needs.
This wouldn’t be a return to the binary system of the past, she claimed. Her system would be more flexible allowing children to move between grammars and non-selective schools. She made this sound a positive strategy – but for ever late-developer moved up there would be one grammar pupil moved down. It is far better, surely, and less cruel to the once-chosen-now-rejected, to allow movement within a school rather than between them. This is what happens in comprehensive schools.
Academies and free schools had been a ‘huge success’, she claimed. But evidence is mounting that they are no better than non-academies. May ignored that evidence, too. This was followed by the mantra about 1.4 million more children in good or better schools than in 2010. But this is because Ofsted has concentrated more on re-inspecting schools that were less than good. Outstanding schools, some of which haven’t been inspected since 2007, have been left alone in complacent neglect. And May ignored another piece of evidence: the improvement in Ofsted judgements has been in the primary sector where academies are a minority. Improvement in the heavily-academized secondary sector has stalled.
May wants greater involvement in state schools by universities and private schools. The argument that state schools would be improved by an injection of private schools DNA is debunked in our book, The Truth About Our Schools*. But there are 3,381 state secondary schools and 16,766 primary schools in England. This greater involvement would be spread rather thinly if all schools were to benefit. Instead, it’s likely only a tiny proportion would actually link with universities or independent schools.
Grammars are very good at reducing the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged (FSM) children who attend them. Who would have thought it? Grammars select only the brightest disadvantaged children. It’s no surprise that the tiny number of FSM children who attend grammars keep up with their advantaged peers – they’ve been handpicked to do so.
Existing grammars would be allowed to expand, May said. This raises the question as to where she’s been for the last six years. Most grammars are now academies and can increase their Pupil Admission Number (PAN) without consultation. Bourne Grammar School in Lincolnshire has done just that. In 2012, its PAN was 150; now it is 240. This allows it to cream off even more high ability pupils from comprehensive schools in Stamford, the Deepings, Rutland and even Peterborough.
New grammar schools would be established but they would have to show that a proportion of their intake comprised children from disadvantaged working class families. Contrary to the comments of a widely-reported 'Whitehall source', May claimed she still wanted to help those eligible for free school meals (FSM). The source had previously said the Government was less interested in the bottom 10%. But May recognised there were families whose children weren’t eligible for FSM but were still not well off. The new grammars would help them, she claimed.
Except grammars wouldn’t help all poor children. Unless children are high ability, they would fail the selection test. And there’s the rub. Grammar schools exist only for the top 25% of the ability range - 75% of pupils must go elsewhere.
May appears only to want to give a leg up to the bright poor – the average and below average must be content with their lot. Not so, she claimed, children not selected would go to good, non-selective state schools, she said. There would be nothing to fear from children being sorted into bright and not-so-bright at 11, May implied.
But there’s a flaw in May’s reasoning. If grammars are promoted as the elite schools for the brightest, then it follows that non-grammar are perceived as second-rate schools for second-class children. No amount of soothing rhetoric will mask that ugly fact.
Grammars are popular, May said. But the latest YouGov poll found just 38% supported the setting up of new grammars.
So why is May pursuing this policy with such enthusiasm when support for new grammars is not as great as claimed and when evidence shows she’s actually moving in the wrong direction? A cynic might say she's chasing votes from the 'ordinary working class'. Or that it’s a diversionary tactic to move the spotlight from the school place crisis, the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, the school funding crisis, the chaos over testing and the growing realisation that academy freedoms are proving illusory for academies in chains. Outside education, there are other looming problems: the NHS, our shrunken defence capabilities, social care, a crumbling infrastructure, increase in poverty… And, of course, Brexit (which means Brexit). Our cynic might say May’s grammar school policy is a sop to Brexiteer MPs – but it’s a sop which will land like a smelly, wet rag on England’s secondary schools.
*You’ve got until 16 September to win a free copy. See here. It also debunks the myths that choice, competition and markets are the route to educational success and comprehensive education has failed.
UPDATE 14.45 Sign petition to say No to new grammars here.
UPDATE 15.12 'Fiddling about with grammar schools is the policy equivalent of stressing about which kids should be placed in a punctured lifeboat as everyone else goes down on a sinking ship.' Editor of Schools Week, Laura McInerney.
UPDATE 15.22 Labour and rebel Tory MPs are working together to defeat May's plans. See Schools Week.
UPDATE 10 September 2016, 08.14. The full text of May's speech is here. Note the only 'evidence' she cites is that attainment at school is the 'overriding factor' in gaining a place at uni. Who would have thought it?
UPDATE 10 September 2016 11.12. The Times editorial today (behind paywall) has come out against May's madcap scheme. She will deserve the ensuing backlash, it said. Her desire for a meritocracy is admirable but her idea to recreate a 'top tier' of selective school is a 'retrograde' step 'at best'. 'She risks consigning a majority of people to a second-class status', it said. The editorial is correct but couldn't resist claiming that Gove's 'quiet revolution' (some mistake, surely? Quiet it certainly wasn't) wrought by academization was working. Not so. A cynic might say that Gove has reprieved his role as Times leader writer. Cynicism aside, whoever wrote the leader may be wrong about academization but s/he's spot on about selection.
CORRECTION 20 September 2016 19.09. The original article said Theresa May's adviser Nick Timothy had told The Times the Government was 'less interested' in the bottom 10%. This was incorrect. The remark was made by an unnamed Whitehall source. This error has been corrected.