A Guardian headline last December exclaimed, “Ofsted chief declares war on grammar schools”. The problem, according to Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector, is that they are “stuffed full of middle-class kids.” Without questioning why these schools are so popular he, effectively, denounced them by claiming that “grammar schools might do well with 10 per cent of the school population, but everyone else does really badly. What we have to do is makesure all schools do well in the areas in which they are located.”
His call to arms and to class warfare neatly overlooked the fact that seven out of the top ten best performing local authorities at GCSE are in areas that include some grammar schools. He alsooverlooked the fact that many ‘secondary modern’ schools, for those who failed to get a grammar school place, do better than comprehensive schools. In addition, public examination results in Northern Ireland, where grammar schools and secondary modern schools have, until now, been retained, are consistently better than in the rest of the UK.
Most important of all, our Chief Inspector has chosen to ignore the wishes of the public. According to an opinion poll carried out by ICM 70 per cent of those questioned support the retention of the 232 grammar schools in England and Northern Ireland. Furthermore, 76 per cent would like to see some new state grammar schools, especially in urban areas where none survive. Only 17 per cent oppose this proposal. Support for grammar schools is strong across all age groups and all income groups but, especially, amongst the ‘young’; 85 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds want more grammar schools.
Given the ‘lip service’ paid by the educational establishment and by politicians to the principle of educating children in accordance with their needs and abilities, it is strange, indeed, that creation of more grammar schools is off the agenda. The Government has agreed that, in theory, existing grammar schools may expand but has, to date, found excuses for turning down all such requests.
Now, we hear that, in order to deal with the overwhelming demand for grammar school places a form of discrimination and rationing is to be introduced. Over half of grammar schools have decided toappease the Chief Inspector by giving priority to pupils on free school meals. This is seriously misguided. The ‘free school meal’ designation is an unreliable discriminator – many eligible do not claim (over 25 per cent in one study) and those falling marginally ‘above’ the line may still be in poverty. Similarly there are those below the line who, simply, choose not to work. And, now, of course, there is an educational incentive to be unemployed.
The fairer way to meet excessive demand is to create more places. The Education Act of 1996 emphasised “the general principle that pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents.” This principle could be honoured by creating lots and lots more grammar schools, not least in the most deprived areas. It would mean that we could meet the needs of academic pupils, whatever their background. Similarly, the creation of top quality vocational schools would, as in many successful economies, provide a pathway for the learning of more practical skills. Alternatively, if a local community wishes to retain comprehensive schools, that decision should be respected.
It is time to let parents have some real say in the choice of educational pathways for their children.