In a recent blog, I predicted that the Government’s plan to expand grammar school provision would provoke the ‘mother of all battles’. The war has got off to an early start thanks to the continuing inability of officials to keep confidential correspondence out of sight of photo lenses.
The “cat is out of the bag,” exclaimed Angela Raynor, the Shadow Education Secretary. The Government is “foisting their (sic) own evidence-free prejudices upon us” opined an outraged ex-Westminster boy, Nick Clegg. “This is not selection educationally, it is selection socially,” cried social mobility tsar, Alan Milburn. In apocalyptic mode he warned that a return to grammars could be “a social mobility disaster”. Nor could former grammar school boy, Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector, contain his anger. He too hit hyperbole mode, describing as “tosh” and “nonsense” any suggestion that poor children would benefit from the availability of more grammar schools.
The Government’s response has been predictably defensive, poorly informed and tentative. In the Commons, yesterday, the new Education Secretary, Justine Greening, was extraordinarily apologetic. The plan for new grammar schools is “absolutely not about going back to the past”, she argued. “There will be no return to the simplistic binary choice of the past where schools split children into winners and losers, successes and failures,” she promised. She did accept, however, that selection can “play a role” in education and, wisely, recognised that grammar schools need to be a part of a “very broad-based school system”.
The inability of the Government and the pro-grammar school backers in Parliament to articulate their case is a matter of some concern. The case for making a grammar school education more widely available is overwhelming and we need to hear it being far more confidently and forcefully expressed.
For the benefit of Justine Greening and her team and, indeed, Mrs May, here is the case that they should be making.
As Prime Minister, David Cameron told the 2015 Conservative Party Conference that, “Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world”. In other words, after around 50 years of a largely comprehensive school education system we are bottom of the international league for social mobility. As the OECD has pointed out, however, we are top of the international league table for illiteracy and innumeracy and the consequent unemployability of our school leavers. What greater indictment of the comprehensive school system could there be?
According to the OECD, our older generation, educated under the secondary modern and grammar school system, are around the top of the international literacy and numeracy league table. It would seem that things were not quite so bad in the ‘bad old days’ after all. We are the only country in the developed world in which grandparents out-perform their grandchildren.
And if we want more evidence that the comprehensive system under performs we can find it within the UK. Northern Ireland has retained its grammar school – secondary modern system and has consistently out-performed the comprehensive school system in the rest of the UK.
The Prime Minister has, at least, had the good sense to tell her MPs that the current situation of school selection by house price is a lot less fair than selection by an academic test. Provided new grammar schools are built in socially deprived areas as well as in more affluent parts we should, indeed, see more working class pupils with academic ability fulfilling their potential and adding to social mobility. But academically able middle class kids, too, have a right to benefit from a grammar school education. We want all children to succeed.
The problem with too many comprehensive schools is that they fail to educate children in line with their aptitude and ability. With the 16+ grammar school exam – the GCE O-Level – banned, there is little incentive or need, these days, for teachers to stretch the academically able. Equally, non-academic children are pushed through ostensibly academic GCSE courses for which they are unsuited. Too many fall by the wayside.
Far better, then, to set up new grammar schools for academic pupils in tandem with new ‘gold-standard’ and properly resourced technical-vocational schools for less academic pupils. The argument we should be having is the age at which pupils move along an academic or a vocational pathway. Personally, I believe that age 13 or 14 would be better than age 11. That would bring us into line with some of the educational super stars of the Asia-Pacific and with some of the more successful European education systems.
From opinion polls, it seems that parents are strongly in favour of grammar schools, even when told that the alternative would be a secondary modern. If the alternative to a grammar school was gold standard vocational schools as part of aptitude-based schooling at age 13 or 14, I think that opposition would be blown away.
The battle has started and the Government’s case should be confident, robust and unassailable, not hesitant and apologetic.