Abolishing grammar schools is not enough

by Patrick Yarker

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Education secretary Nicky Morgan has agreed that Weald of Kent Grammar School, a single-sex academy in Tonbridge, can open a new building in Sevenoaks. This is officially an ‘annexe’ even though it is 10 miles away.

The decision potentially heralds an upsurge in selection by ‘academic ability’ on a scale not seen for decades. At least ten further projects to expand existing grammar schools await ministerial approval.

New Labour legislated in 1998 to prevent construction of new grammar schools. In part this was to deflect grassroots pressure for the abolition of those grammar schools that remained after the uncompleted move to comprehensivisation around the 1960s and 70s. To circumvent New Labour’s law, the building in Sevenoaks is being presented as an ‘annexe’ to the existing school despite the distance. Morgan’s decision will probably be challenged in court, but Weald of Kent’s status as an academy may work in its favour: legally it is an independent school.

163 grammar schools remain in England, educating about 164,000 pupils. Ten local authorities operate fully-selective education-systems, and 26 other authorities have oversight of at least one grammar school. The South East has the highest proportion of state secondary pupils attending grammars. The only English region without such schools is the North East.

Grammar schools are more likely than other secondary schools to be academies. They are much less likely than other secondary schools to contain children with special educational needs, or children who qualify for free school meals. Nationally, about 15% of secondary school pupils can claim free meals. At Weald of Kent Grammar School that figure is 1.3%.

Grammar schools don’t exist in isolation, although their advocates like to pretend they do. If one secondary school selects by so-called academic ‘ability’, neighbouring schools are affected by the loss of high-attaining students. This is almost certainly damaging in terms of exam results and therefore league table position, which can have grave consequences.

Advocates claim that grammar schools enhance social mobility by enabling some deprived children to find examination success and hence escape their social origins. This claim was never true even in the heyday of the grammar/secondary modern system. Children of manual workers had less chance of getting into grammar schools, and only one in three of the children of unskilled parents who did win a place left with 3 or more O Levels. (See myth 4 of 11 grammar school myths)

This myth of grammar schools enhancing social mobility remains as untrue now, given the overwhelmingly middle-class nature of the grammar school intake. A longitudinal study undertaken recently by researchers at the Institute of Education in London found that: “Contrary to popular opinion, a grammar school education also does not appear to have increased working-class pupils’ chances of getting a degree.”

But even if the social mobility claim did hold water it would be right to oppose grammar schools, and all models of education based on academic selection. Social mobility does nothing to mitigate the injustices and inequalities which structure everyone’s life-chances under capitalism. It leaves them intact. Yet it is these which have to go. Not enhanced social mobility, but the eradication of class society, is what is required.

Other forms of selection persist

Grammar schools are one highly-concentrated manifestation of the exclusivity which informs mainstream thinking about education in England. Such thinking remains shackled to the view that each child is born with a given quantum of ‘ability’, that this quantum is fixed for life, and that it can be measured accurately enough by testing. A harder version holds that this quantum is genetically inherited. Such determinist thinking about children and young people underpins the widely-held view that they come with broad types of brain, and consequently some are in need of an ‘academic’ curriculum, as offered by grammar schools, and others need a ‘vocational’ one.

Rather than fall victim to the ideology of ‘ability’, we should always ask: ability at what, in what circumstances, under what conditions, out of what history? Furthermore, we should advance against notions of fixed ‘ability’ and types of children a counter-view, that each child is already a capable learner, and always ready to learn more about anything if conditions (both external and internal) can be made conducive.

The overt message of the grammar school and its advocates, that children can be reliably labelled at 11, is part of a bigger problem. The underlying thinking pervades the entire mainstream education sector and informs fundamental practices in it, through such practices as streaming, setting and ‘ability groups’. Ironically, Weald of Kent’s neighbouring non-selective secondary is proud to declare it offers a ‘grammar stream’.

Many teachers are made uneasy by the structural manifestations of fixed ability thinking, and some know from personal experience how constricting this can be. Yet it is sustained by routine selection within schools, reinforced (despite all the research evidence) by pressure from politicians and Ofsted.

For a demolition of fixed-ability thinking in education and case studies of schools which avoid it, read Learning without Limits and Creating Learning without Limits.

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