The Prime Minister is beginning to look under siege over her proposals for opening new grammar schools. In the recent Commons exchange, even the hapless Jeremy Corbyn landed a few blows. At the heart of the anti-grammar school argument is the relative performance of free school meals (FSM) pupils in Kent and in London.
On the surface, the case against grammar schools looks convincing. In 2014/15 only 27 per cent of Kent FSM pupils achieved 5 good GCSEs, as against 46 per cent in London. The educational establishment, the Blob, would have us believe that this is game, set and match to London, to the comprehensive school system and to the opponents of grammar schools. The Prime Minister and her Education Secretary have struggled to provide fully convincing counter arguments. They have fallen back on the promise to discriminate in favour of academically able children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is not good enough. We will need a much more robust and well-informed response to criticism of the grammar schools if a new education Bill is to make progress through both Houses.
Why is it not being pointed out that London is a special case and that comparison with Kent is unfair and misleading? Not only are there some high performing grammars schools in the capital, the population profile is very different from the rest of the country. Around 40 per cent of Londoners are immigrants and over half of London primary school children have a mother who is an immigrant. This is twice the proportion in the remainder of the UK.
According to a report last autumn from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, immigrants do a lot better than white British from poor backgrounds. Immigrant children tend to be highly motivated, hardworking and the beneficiaries of much extra support from both parents, teachers and, if they can afford it, private tutors. They are a great success story but this success is not the consequence of ‘bog standard’ comprehensive schools. Too many non-immigrant children are failing in these very same schools.
A new OECD report emphasises this new ‘divide’ in our education system. It has found that children of immigrant parents are more likely to go to university. Lucky London schools, then, to have so many immigrant children in their ranks! Not so lucky the rest of the country that is stuck with a comprehensive school system that does no more for FSM children than the much criticised grammar school system in Kent. Outside London the average percentage of FSM pupils attaining 5 ‘good’ GCSE is 30 per cent. Some comprehensive school areas do slightly better than Kent’s 27 per cent and some do worse.
The most honest comparison between areas of the UK is not between ‘special case’ London and Kent. It is between the average attainment of FSM pupils in England outside London and the average of these poorer children in Northern Ireland, which has retained a grammar school-secondary modern system.
46 per cent of FSM pupils in Northern Ireland achieved 5 ‘good’ GCSE’s last year. This is 50 per cent better than the average for England outside of special case London. It is, also, equal to London with its advantage of so many immigrants.
And what do our immigrants make of the grammar school v comprehensive row? In my position as Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, I receive an increasing amount of correspondence from them. Provided I leave out names, I have been given permission to quote from one mother whose daughter has just taken the 11+ test for grammar school:
“My daughter did her pre-test today…I was surprised that, when we got on to the waiting ground for several halls, there were hundreds of parents there and it was as if we were in Asia or Africa, hardly any white children. There was a huge number of Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Indian and African families, probably 90 per cent. Many …work for the minimum wage yet their children have been having private tuition for years.
My daughter says in her hall of, I think, 100 kids there were hardly ten white children and out of them several were from private schools. She is fine with it, but we were both perplexed.
Where are white native British children? That is the question.
I feel as if we, foreigners, have occupied the country but no one stops white British families from giving it a go.
You look at the huge check-list of hundreds of names when registering and there are hardly any European names.
I did not expect that at all and am very shocked. Where are the white Brits?”
Our highly successful immigrant families seem the keenest of all on grammar schools. They want their children educated in line with their ability.
There is an argument for comprehensive schools, of course, but it is not the one being presented by the Blob and its camp followers in Parliament and in the media. It is to have comprehensive schools that match those in China in terms of teaching and attainment. This would mean GCSEs being sat at age 12 and A-Levels being sat at age 14 – with teaching to match.