In search of a coherent policy on academic selection
The Conservative Party policy on grammar schools is abhorrent. It would take a blog and a half to recount all the evidence that has been amassed against it in the last nine months.
It won’t help poorer children, or indeed most children; it will divide schools, communities and make it harder for local non -selective schools to recruit good teachers at a time of chronic shortage.
It is also fundamentally dishonest, pretending that you can drop a grammar school in an otherwise comprehensive area and the remaining schools will function as they did before. They can’t. The most able pupils will be creamed off so whatever you call the schools left behind they will still be secondary moderns, which no one is campaigning to bring back.
We are where we are now in part because the Labour government in 1997, with its huge majority, fudged this issue, outlawing any further use of the 11 plus while allowing the existing grammar to stay put. If grammar schools didn’t still exist in some communities as a result of this decision, I doubt anyone would be trying to bring them back.
But while they are there, they provide a very few parents with a choice that the majority of parents don’t have. This gives the current government an excuse of sorts even though in those areas everyone else’s choices are very much reduced.
Grammars can also expand. The satellite grammar school opening shortly in Kent is an offshoot of an existing selective school. This may well be the route by which many “new” grammars are created if the Tories win the General Election.
So, who has a coherent policy on selection?
When I interviewed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn two years ago, during the party’s first leadership contest, he said this:
“I would want all grammars to become comprehensives and to end the 11-plus where it still exists. Labour has always been too nervous of upsetting vested interests and that old school network. We need to be bolder about all children having an equal chance, proud of the idea of first-rate community comprehensive education and encourage a diverse mix of pupils in all our schools.”
Yet there is no mention of ending selection in the Labour Party manifesto so the fudge persists. There is opposition to the current Conservative plans to create new grammar schools and claims about not wanting "a return to secondary moderns”. But not a whisper about the secondary moderns that already exist in 15 fully selective local authorities. Children’s life chances in those areas are blighted by the misery and inequality of the 11 plus test.
The Labour Party doesn’t mention the word comprehensive in its manifesto which is odd since you would have thought that any “National Education Service” worth its salt would have comprehensive education at its heart. In an interview with the Evening Standard recently Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner claimed that grammar schools were fine if they had high standards and were doing well for the children in them. Hmmm.
I have heard this idea that we shouldn’t “destroy good schools” before from successive Labour Education and Shadow Education Secretaries. But no one wants to destroy any schools, simply change the way they admit their pupils.
I also heard the same argument from David Laws, when he was the Liberal Democrat’s Education spokesman (you can see I have been around a bit with this one). Now he is busy as chair of the Education Policy Institute, one of those bodies that dishes up the evidence about how damaging new selection would be but hasn’t got much to say about the selection that already exists.
And over at the Lib Dem manifesto it is business as usual with more weasel words. Like Labour the Lib Dems manage to be for and against selection at the same time and will oppose new grammar schools but do nothing about the existing 163. The ambivalence of both parties on this subject has probably helped to ensure that the grammar school plan is a non-issue in the election campaign.
Does any party’s policy make sense?
Well UKIP policy is dreadful but at least vaguely consistent; a grammar school in every town, no lip service to comprehensive education with all 11 plus failures going to a vocational, technical or “specialist” secondary modern in what would be a full-on recreation of the 1950s
Only the Greens - a little party in electoral terms but with one more MP than UKIP when the election was called - have the guts to call this one out. The Green Party education policy is to allow no new grammar schools and to “gradually integrate grammar and secondary modern schools into the comprehensive system.”
Simple really. If academic selection is wrong for one group of childen, it is wrong for all. At Comprehensive Future, which campaigns for fair admissions to all schools, we have been arguing for a decade that this sort of transition to comprehensive education could happen over a 10 to 15-year period and not affect any children currently being educated in a grammar school. Our 2009 publication Ending Rejection suggesting how this could be done, can be read here.
This election includes one very bad policy (the Tories’) and one very big missed opportunity (the failure of the main opposition parties to oppose all selection). Labour and the Liberal Democrats are offering to invest billions in education. There are grammar schools in a quarter of English local authorities. This desperately needed cash could have been made conditional on each local area coming up with a transitional plan to full comprehensive education, just as the Labour government could have tied its vast Building Schools to the Future programme to a similar requirement.
Whoever wins the General Election, this is still a vital issue. Some Tories claim there will only be a few new grammar schools in a handful of areas if they form the new government. But that is what they said in 1988 when they changed to law to introduce the first handful of independent state schools (City Technology Colleges). There are now over 5000 academies, the successors to the CTCs.
Hundreds of grammar schools would be a dangerous legacy. If the Tories win and the opposition parties don’t change their position from “we’ll keep those grammars that already exist’ new selective schools will be here to stay, the face of English education would be changed forever and certainly not in a good way.
And If Conservatives don’t win the existing grammar schools appear to be unassailable until someone finally has the courage to take them on.