In search of a coherent policy on academic selection

Fiona Millar's picture


The Conservative Party policy on grammar schools is abhorrent. It would take a blog and a half to recount all the evidence that has been amassed against it in the last nine months.

 It won’t help poorer children, or indeed most children; it will divide schools, communities and make it harder for local non -selective schools to recruit good teachers at a time of chronic shortage.

 It is also fundamentally dishonest, pretending that you can drop a grammar school in an otherwise comprehensive area and the remaining schools will function as they did before. They can’t. The most able pupils will be creamed off so whatever you call the schools left behind they will still be secondary moderns, which no one is campaigning to bring back.

 We are where we are now in part because the Labour government in 1997, with its huge majority, fudged this issue, outlawing any further use of the 11 plus while allowing the existing grammar to stay put. If grammar schools didn’t still exist in some communities as a result of this decision, I doubt anyone would be trying to bring them back.

 But while they are there, they provide a very few parents with a choice that the majority of parents don’t have. This gives the current government an excuse of sorts even though in those areas everyone else’s choices are very much reduced.

 Grammars can also expand. The  satellite grammar school opening shortly in Kent is an offshoot of an existing selective school. This may well be the route by which many “new” grammars are created if the Tories win the General Election.

 So, who has a coherent policy on selection?

 When I interviewed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn two years ago, during the party’s first leadership contest, he said this:

 “I would want all grammars to become comprehensives and to end the 11-plus where it still exists. Labour has always been too nervous of upsetting vested interests and that old school network. We need to be bolder about all children having an equal chance, proud of the idea of first-rate community comprehensive education and encourage a diverse mix of pupils in all our schools.”

 Yet there is no mention of ending selection in the Labour Party manifesto so the fudge persists. There is opposition to the current Conservative plans to create new grammar schools and claims about not wanting "a return to secondary moderns”. But not a whisper about the secondary moderns that already exist in 15 fully selective local authorities. Children’s life chances in those areas are blighted by the misery and inequality of the 11 plus test.

 The Labour Party doesn’t mention the word comprehensive in its manifesto which is odd since you would have thought that any “National Education Service” worth its salt would have comprehensive education at its heart.  In an interview with the Evening Standard recently Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner claimed that grammar schools were fine if they had high standards and were doing well for the children in them. Hmmm.

 I have heard this idea that we shouldn’t “destroy good schools” before from successive Labour Education and Shadow Education Secretaries. But no one wants to destroy any schools, simply change the way they admit their pupils.

 I also heard the same argument from David Laws, when he was the Liberal Democrat’s Education spokesman (you can see I have been around a bit with this one). Now he is busy as chair of the Education Policy Institute, one of those bodies that dishes up the evidence about how damaging new selection would be but hasn’t got much to say about the selection that already exists.

 And over at the Lib Dem manifesto  it is business as usual with more weasel words. Like Labour the Lib Dems manage to be for and against selection at the same time and will oppose new grammar schools but do nothing about the existing 163. The ambivalence of both parties on this subject has probably helped to ensure that the grammar school plan is a non-issue in the election campaign.

 Does any party’s policy make sense?

 Well UKIP policy is dreadful but at least vaguely consistent; a grammar school in every town, no lip service to comprehensive education with all 11 plus failures going to a vocational, technical or “specialist” secondary modern in what would be a full-on recreation of the 1950s

 Only the Greens - a little party in electoral terms but with one more MP than UKIP when the election was called - have the guts to call this one out. The Green Party education policy is to allow no new grammar schools and to “gradually integrate grammar and secondary modern schools into the comprehensive system.”

 Simple really. If academic selection is wrong for one group of childen, it is wrong for all. At Comprehensive Future, which campaigns for fair admissions to all schools, we have been arguing for a decade that this sort of transition to comprehensive education could happen over a 10 to 15-year period and not affect any children currently being educated in a grammar school. Our 2009 publication Ending Rejection suggesting how this could be done, can be read here.

This election includes one very bad policy (the Tories’) and one very big missed opportunity (the failure of the main opposition parties to oppose all selection). Labour and the Liberal Democrats are offering to invest billions in education. There are grammar schools in a quarter of English local authorities. This desperately needed cash could have been made conditional on each local area coming up with a transitional plan to full comprehensive education, just as the Labour government could have tied its vast Building Schools to the Future programme to a similar requirement.

Whoever wins the General Election, this is still a vital issue. Some Tories claim there will only be a few new grammar schools in a handful of areas if they form the new government. But that is what they said in 1988 when they changed to law to introduce the first handful of independent state schools (City Technology Colleges). There are now over 5000 academies, the successors to the CTCs.

 Hundreds of grammar schools would be a dangerous legacy. If the Tories win and the opposition parties don’t change their position from “we’ll keep those grammars that already exist’ new selective schools will be here to stay, the face of English education would be changed forever and certainly not in a good way.

 And If Conservatives don’t win the existing grammar schools appear to be unassailable until someone finally has the courage to take them on.


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Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 29/05/2017 - 11:18

If Labour and the Lib Dems don't want to close grammars because they're 'good' schools, they can insist that these good schools open their doors for all pupils and not be able to choose which taxpayers' children they are prepared to educate.  

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 29/05/2017 - 13:07

I agree that it would have been good to see a commitment to scrapping selection in those parts of England where it remains. I would also like to see a right for parents to vote to return Academies and Free Schools to LA control. See

Points 3 & 10

It is a very long time since we have had an Education Minister (or shadow) that knew anything about education. Was the last one Estelle Morris? However I do think Angela Rayner is doing a good job. She is by far the best Shadow Education Secretary since Labour have been in opposition.

I suspect (and hope) that the omissions in relation to education are down to pragmatism rather than principle. It is a long Manifesto that is going down well with the public and which is very cleverly constructed. I expect to see the education issues addressed more fully when we have got rid of the Conservative government, which is the goal I urge all those concerned with the damage being done to our schools by the marketisation paradigm to work hard for in the next ten days.

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 29/05/2017 - 13:26

Unfortunately when it comes to ending selection I think principle should trump pragmatism, which has been the driving force behind maintaining the status quo for the last 20 years. I agree that the market driven approach to schools has had its day but not sure any of the main opposition parties are really offering much change. Apart from a bit of tinkering around the edges diversity, choice and competition will remain in place. It is a shame that Labour is promising money without any  radical reform. The Green manifesto is extraordinarily detailed ( and good) but since they will only get one MP not sure what good it will do ( without PR).


agov's picture
Tue, 30/05/2017 - 09:42

Fiona is right. The case against grammar schools and academies should be based on principle (and actual effects) not pragmatic betrayal. Even if Labour were to win the general election (- as if!) the reality is that the PLP remains dominated by the Blairites who have always been worse than the Tories. Better to focus on persuading those in the Conservative party who understand and care about the issues to ensure Nick Timothy is not allowed a monopoly of telling Theresa May what to believe about education policy.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 30/05/2017 - 12:08

I think the point of my piece is that we have a lot of persuading still to do across the board and with all the parties bar the Greens.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 30/05/2017 - 12:35

Fiona is right as is shown by the absence of education issues in last nights's Paxman event, where it got no mention by him or the audience. However it very clear that Conservative policies are truly appalling, as Fiona points out. It is also clear that a sizable majority for May will render any Conservative rebels powerless, so what counts is to maximise Labour votes on 8 May.  As for Blairite MPs and sympathisers in the Labour Party, it is already clear that Jeremy Corbyn is/has been doing an excellent job in this campaign in lifting Labour support to levels not far off that achieved by Blair in 2005 and higher than that achieved by Millband and Brown, such that a Corbyn Prime Minister is now a realistic possibility, if not a Labour majority.  A Corbyn cabinet would open doors to many Blairites that have opposed him and finally see off the disgraceful coup attempt without which Labour would now be comfortably leading in the polls.

So anybody that cares as much about comprehensive education as I know Fiona does should be busting a gut to get Corbyn elected as PM and saving the arguments about the details of education policy until later. There is already enough of a gulf between Labour and the Conservatives on funding, admissions and school organisation to ensure massive backing for Labour from Education professionals, parents and students.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 30/05/2017 - 13:37

We will have to come back to this point after the election but my strong instinct - having discussed this issue with successive politicians of all parties - is that not much will change when it comes to selection. This was the moment for Labour to address a long standing failure in policy and as far as I am concerned they have failed miserably. Not one single mention of comprehensive education in the manifesto!

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 30/05/2017 - 13:58

Rhe Manifesto is clear on opposition to May's plan for new grammar schools, where Angela Rayner has been a consistently strong performer. It is also strong on school funding.

"Labour will not waste money on
inefficient free schools and the
Conservatives’ grammar schools
vanity project. Labour does not want
a return to secondary moderns. We
will also oppose any attempt to force
schools to become academies.
Labour’s schools policy will be built
on the following four foundations:
1. Investment – we will make sure
schools are properly resourced
by reversing the Conservatives’ cuts
and ensuring that all schools have
the resources they need. We will
introduce a fairer funding formula
that leaves no school worse off,
while redressing the historical
underfunding of certain schools.
Labour will also invest in new school
buildings, including the phased
removal of asbestos from existing
2. Quality – we will drive up standards
across the board, learning from
examples of best practice, such as
Labour’s London Challenge,
to encourage co-operation and
strong leadership across schools. We
and trust in teachers and support
staff professionalism to refocus their
workload on what happens in the

The direction of travel under a Corbyn Labour government seems pretty clear to me and couldn't more different from the feeble offerings of Tristram Hunt and his like, not to mention that Blair and Brown introduced Academies in the first place providing the foundation for everything wrotten that has followed.

Now is the time for getting behind Jeremy Corbyn and his team and not carping. Comprehensive education is safe under a Corbym-led government. 

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 30/05/2017 - 16:58

Humble apologies for (all) the typos.

Matthew Bennett's picture
Tue, 30/05/2017 - 16:50

The Greens' commitment to 'integrate grammar and secondary modern schools into the comprehensive system' assumes that there is still a comprehensive system to integrate them into.  There isn't -- there is an academised system.  The 'system leader trusts' have as little interest in comprehensive education as in any other educational values or principles.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 30/05/2017 - 17:16

Matthew is right. Academisation has corrupted not just Academies and Free Schools but also the LA schools forced to compete with them on their own terms. I write about this in relation to science education here.

"The English education system is been consumed and corrupted by the marketisation paradigm. This has allowed the ‘behaviourist’ philosophy of the business world to infect and corrupt the ruling pedagogy of our school system.

Nothing can better illustrate the dangers than this article on Local Schools Network, together with my reply to it.

But has our education system got worse in these regards? Ask any science teacher with experience from before the marketisation-enabling 1988 Education Reform Act and they will agree with me that it has. This is what I wrote in this article.

On 21 November 2013 OfSTED published a report entitled, Maintaining curiosity: a survey into science education in schools. They found that dull teaching – accompanied by a lack of practical work in the subject – was putting pupils off the science subjects. In some schools, not enough time had been set aside in the timetable for pupils to do practical work. Girls, in particular, were likely to ditch physics – with only 11,390 going on to do it in the sixth-form in 2011 despite 159,745 getting two good GCSE passes in science. In addition, a minority of secondary schools were ‘pre-occupied with tests and examination results as ends in themselves’ rather than aiming to improve pupils’ deeper knowledge of the subject. The report points out that getting good grades in science is not necessarily the same as “getting” science.

Part of this corruption is the replacement of the complex study of how children and crucially how their cognition can be developed so as to be able to grasp and make personal sense of difficult concepts, by the the simplistic prescriptions of behaviourism and its emphasis on selection/streaming, rote learning and regurgitation of facts.

These are the crucial issues that underpin a comprehensive education system. I agree with Fiona that no political party seems interested in confronting them, including Labour (as yet). However I live in hope.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 31/05/2017 - 11:57

I have never been a fan of the academised system, regardless of who is in power. None of the parties is proposing a significant change to this. Even Labour had nothing to say about local oversight of school and how we regulate/fund existing academies and free schools. However I think it is wrong to suggest that academies are not comprehensive schools. The majority of secondary schools are all ability academies and via their professional organisations the heads are putting up strong opposition to this dangerous grammar school policy. I haven't got much good to say for Michael Gove and don't think the diversification of our school system has brought anything like the benefits it claims. Nevertheless it was signifcant that he set out to create a new type of comprehensive school rather than revert to a selective system, as his successor has chosen to do and which would have been in line with the gut instincts of his party.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 31/05/2017 - 12:54

Fiona,  Academies  may be 'comprehensive' on paper, but because of their power to write their own admission policies they have had a devasting effect on  local LA comprehensive systems that were working well. Our marketised system relies on crude aggregated GCSE results. All other things being equal schools' resaults will differ according to the mean cognitive ability (IQ if you like) of their intake cohorts. These differ widely on a postcode basis for the reasons that I set in my book, 'Learning Matters'.  Academies have the power to use (abuse) proxy ability indicators to disproportionately admit more able cohorts compelling  lowering the mean intaker cognitive ability of the competing LA schools that are forced to abide by LA wide proximity based admission rules.  A common ploy is to have very expensive uniforms. Where I live the newly created Furness Academy had an admissions policy that refused entry for all pupils living nearer to an LA comprehensive located in a poorer part of the town. This was crude demograhic intake manipulation approved by Labour Education Secretary Ed Balls.

In other areas Academies have used CATs based 'fair banding' admissions systems in areas where the mean local CATs score was below the national mean of 100, thus siphoning off the more able children and forcing the LA comprehensives to have lower mean ability intakes. This too is explained in detail in my book using the example of Mossbourne Academy and Hackney, the only LA with a uniform (and therefore more equitable) CATs based admissions system.

So on the ground Academision in many areas has been just a destructively selective as grammar school selection.

On top of that Academies have corrupted teaching methods in favour of quick fix, shallow learning, behaviourist cramming that maximises GCSE results but with many undesirable side effects for pupils and progression to further and higher education.

So sorry, you have got this wrong and there will bre many other local areas like mine in Barrow -in-Furness where thge comprehensive system has been damaged by Academisation.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 31/05/2017 - 20:28

I agree that the entire admissions system needs reforming but the fiddles you refer to are even more prevalent in the faith school maintained sector which are generally more socially selective than all other types of schools , bar grammars, according to most recent analysis of DFE data. Sponsored academies are generally more socially segregated compared to their local communities.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 31/05/2017 - 21:25

I absolutely agree with you about faith schools. They are often very socially as well as as religiously selective. The Conservatives are determined to give them even more powers to select and segregate on the basis of parents' religious faith. The effects on social cohesion will be serious.

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