The Government wants more grammar schools to open. It also wants existing grammars to prioritise children from ‘ordinary working families’ who are just about managing. This, the Education Secretary Justine Greening said on BBC TV news this morning, would make grammars open to all.
This is untrue. Grammars select by ability so can never be open to all. No amount of prioritisation of certain classes of children will make grammars truly accessible.
The only true way to make grammars open to all is for them to open their doors to children of all abilities.
Greening appears not to accept this. It’s all about ‘levelling up’ she told Radio 4 Today this morning – giving children from families ‘below median incomes’ the chance to flourish by going to ‘great schools’. But this ignores the achievement of the majority of comprehensives across England who give the chance to flourish to ALL children. And it implies comprehensives are not and never can be ‘great’. This is so blinkered as to be inexcusable.
The Education Secretary has fallen into the trap of believing only grammars offer a chance to bright children. This is not true. She offers as evidence the fact that grammar schools are good at closing the gap between disadvantaged children, as measured by eligibility for free school meals, and non-disadvantaged children. This is disingenuous. Grammars select by ability so any gap is eliminated before children are chosen. It’s easy to close a gap between disadvantaged and advantaged when none exists.
Who are 'ordinary working families'? Greening was asked. She told BBC TV that provisional data produced by the Department for Education (DfE) identified those families where household income was below £33k per annum. But this wasn’t definite. There would be a consultation ‘seeking views on the methodology in our paper analysing the household income and educational outcomes of pupils in England’.
Commenting on the DfE analysis, Rebecca Allen of Education DataLab points out:
‘I don’t think it is particularly helpful to use statistics as the government has, because it seems to imply that low income families stand as good a chance of gaining access to a grammar school as they do a comprehensive. This is, of course, by construction impossible since comprehensives collectively offer education for 100% of pupils.’
Greening used this impossible construction on BBC TV – she wanted to ensure children from ordinary working families, however defined, would have the same chance to attend a grammar as they do in attending a comprehensive. But all children have a 100% chance of attending a comprehensive. All children do not, and never will, have a 100% chance of attending a selective school.
If Greening wants all children to have the same chance of attending grammars as they do in attending comprehensives, then the logical answer is to turn all selective schools into non-selective ones.
But Grammars are ‘extremely popular’, Greening told Today. So are hundreds of comprehensives. And oversubscription to grammars doesn’t apply in Lincolnshire where some grammars have vacancies for September. It must, be said, however, that Lincolnshire is probably not typical. Figures are hard to find but Buckinghamshire grammars appear oversubscribed if out-county applicants and second and later preferences are factored in. Data for Poole showed that applications for Poole’s grammars included some from parents of children who had either failed or not taken the 11+. These, of course, were rejected.
That brings us to the nub of the matter. Parents don’t choose grammars. Grammars choose pupils.
If the Government is serious about raising educational standards in England then it would do well to ditch this dead cat strategy and fund schools properly. The ‘unnecessary distraction’ of grammars moves attention away from the very real funding crisis affecting England’s schools.
It’s worth remembering that this grammar school policy isn’t coming from the DfE, although Greening is its docile voice, but from Number Ten and its shadowy Selective Education Team. The identity of this team is largely unknown and according to a response to my Freedom of Information request about meetings between the team and the Grammar School Heads Association, we must not speculate on the identity of its members. This ‘would contravene a number of the data protection principles in the Data Protection Act 1998’. It would be regarded as ‘unfair’.
What is unfair is reducing the Education Secretary to a mere puppet of Number 10 defending a policy when I suspect her heart isn’t really in it.
What is unfair is ignoring the majority of children to give an overrated advantage to a small number of children when this supposed advantage is outweighed by the negative effect on the rest.
And it isn’t just unfair but cynical to develop this policy because it’s a ‘winning formula’ for votes. It’s contemptuous of voters and scornful of decades of evidence about the negative effects of early selection.
It is, to use the memorable words of Sam Freedman, former advisor to Michael Gove, ‘garbage’.
PS Does anyone know when the results of the so-called consultation into Schools that work for everyone will be published? The only hint we’ve had from Greening is that the response wasn’t ‘an overwhelming flood of negativity’. Hardly an awe-inspiring vote of approval. Tom Middlehurst, head of policy and public affairs with the Schools, Students and Teachers Network, argues that the Consultation was a ‘complete travesty’ in any case. That’s something I’ve been saying for some time.