Many people have written about this much more eloquently and persuasively than I can – such as Sam Freedman, Greg Ashman, Rebecca Allen, Chris Cook to name but a few – and Laura McInerney has just overtaken Matthew Tate as my educational hero of the week for her patient, persistent use of evidence in a post-facts policy-making pandemonium.
Just for my own peace of mind, however, here are my thoughts on the grammar schools policy.
It’s not about parental choice
On the Today programme on Radio 4, Education Secretary Justine Greening kept returning to the argument that expanding existing grammar schools and allowing the creation of new ones improved parental choice. This is incorrect. In a selective education system, parents don’t choose the best school for their children; schools choose the “best” children for themselves. And children have no choice whatsoever.
The evidence is against it
This seems a pointless argument. Policy makers aren’t interested in evidence or facts or experts any more. But selective education disadvantages the disadvantaged, whilst giving advantages or making little-to-no difference to those who already have a head start. It doesn’t improve social mobility. The best comprehensives are doing better for all pupils – improving standards in comprehensives would make more difference. Teach First’s statement on this sums it up best:
It has an impact on every school
I wish I could believe that all Headteachers would take a principled stance and remain firmly comprehensive, but since we know that Progress 8 (and definitely the Basics, EBacc and Attainment 8 measures) favour schools with higher prior attainment on intake, I very much doubt that this will be the case. And once one school in an area decides to change its comprehensive intake to a selective one, it affects every single school in that area. Every school will have to review its admissions stance. If we remain comprehensive, will we lose the high achievers from our intake to the selective school down the road and become a secondary modern by default?
It allows gaming the accountability measures on a systemic level
Theresa May’s proposals included encouragement for grammars to move students between schools at 14 and 16 (note that schools would do this: where’s the parental choice?). So, if your grammar-controlled secondary modern has done really well for you and you’re flourishing academically, you get hived off into the grammar parent school at 14. And if you managed to pass at 11 but you don’t make the grade at 14, you’re unceremoniously kicked out. And then, hey presto, the accountability measures at 16 for the grammar school look incredible, whilst the secondary modern flounders despite its best efforts, and the DfE presents its evidence that their policy has been a rip-roaring success in raising standards.
The Key Stage 2 tests suddenly look even more sinister
I was amongst many who flung up my hands in dismay at the notion that students at the end of Year 6 would be labelled as having met, or not met, the expected standard, then sent up into Year 7 with the whiff of “success” or “failure” already hanging over them. I’m still awaiting the horror-show of making those Year 7s who have not made the expected standard re-sit the tests after a few months of secondary. But now, is it just me who thinks that the Year 6 tests look a little bit like an 11+?
There’s money to put behind grammar expansion, but not for comprehensives with a track record of success
Theresa May also announced £50m to support the expansion of existing grammars. I know that, in the scheme of things, this isn’t a massive sum nationally. But honestly every school leader or business manager I know who would bite your hand off for an additional £500 in the budget right now. It is galling to see this money flung at selective schools to expand whilst outstanding comprehensives, doing great work for all children, struggle.
It’s a sleight-of-hand policy which distracts from everything else
Also this week we learned that teacher training courses are half empty with the profession facing a recruitment crisis. Schools budgets are in meltdown. New accountability measures are due to be published this month as schools continue to implement a new curriculum and testing regime in Early Years, Key Stage 1, Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3, Key Stage 4 and Post-16 at the same time. Academies that are part of MATs haven’t been audited due to loopholes. There are concerns that people are siphoning public money out of the system into their own bank accounts through academy freedoms. Rooves are leaking. SEND reforms are almost unworkable. But look: a return to selection! Over here! Look! Watch this!
We can’t possibly fight on all fronts. But a return to selection? We must.