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Chris McGovern: A mother of all battles looms over the return of grammar schools

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A government source has indicated that Tony Blair’s 1998 ban on new grammar schools may soon be lifted. The intention, the source claimed, is to raise “social mobility” and to ensure “that people have the opportunity to capitalise on all their talents.” An ORB poll suggests that 70 per cent of Britons want the ban lifted and 80 per cent think that lifting it will boost social mobility.

If this initiative goes ahead, we are in for the mother of all battles on the schools front. Anti-grammar school jihadists from the “Blob”, and their camp followers, are already on the march.

Labour’s shadow education secretary, Angela Raynor started the ball rolling by declaring that selective schools belong “in the dustbin of history.” Owen Smith, leadership contender for her party, added that grammar schools “entrench disadvantage” and pledged to “fight tooth and nail” any attempt to lift the ban. Both Labour’s deputy leader and the LibDem’s leader have made similar commitments. To cap it all, the Tory chairman of the education select committee, Neil Carmichael, has come out firmly against any new grammar schools: “We have serious issues about social mobility, in particular white working class young people, and I don’t think that having more grammar schools is going to help them.” He disagrees, then, with most parents.

Just how narrow and blinkered can a debate about schooling become? The anti-grammar school zealots see ‘selection’ only in terms of the 11+ examination. They appear to believe that the comprehensive school system is ‘selection free’. What hypocritical tosh! The means to purchase a house in the catchment area of a good school or having the right ‘connections’ with a good school is a far more insidious form of selection than any academic assessment. It was not through an 11+ test, for example, that the Cameron and Gove children won places at the same super-prestigious comprehensive school. If it had been, it would have been a lot fairer on the many unsuccessful applicants.

In truth, our current school system is as selective as it ever was under the old tripartite system. The well off go private or they buy into the ‘right’ catchment area. For all its faults, the 11+ does at least give children from poor backgrounds a chance and that chance would be much enhanced with the establishment of many more grammar schools in deprived parts of the country.

The Government needs to go further, however, than simply expanding grammar school provision. Children are best educated in line with their ability, whether those abilities be academic or vocational. Too many comprehensive schools are failing in this task. Around 20 per cent of school leavers are considered by employers as unemployable and, according to the OECD, even our best pupils trail well behind the attainment of our economic rivals in the Asia-Pacific.

We need academic schools (grammar schools) for the academic and gold standard vocational schools for non-academic children. The British snobbery that academic is superior to vocational will whither away as more resources go into vocational schools and they become the success stories they are elsewhere around the world.

Indeed, the enhanced employment prospects attached to a vocational pathway should lead to many youngsters preferring that route, as is the case in Switzerland and Germany. Take your choice – engineering and the construction industry or higher level study of literature and geography. It should be horses for courses – different but equally valid pathways.

The argument should be at what age the transition to academic or vocational schooling takes places. There is a strong case to be made that age 11 is too young. The provision of separate academic and vocational pathways might be better left to the age of 13. Entry into secondary education at this age has been a traditional feature of many independent schools. 13+ entry into grammar school was a feature of the old tripartite system and I was one of those who benefitted from it.

Provided a new generation of grammar schools sit alongside gold standard vocational schools, we will have a fairer and a better education system for all… and the mother of all battles will have be won.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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