Grammar school plans: a dangerous distraction

by Professor Mel Ainscow, University of Manchester

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The decision to abolish

Some years ago a neighbour came to my front door crying because her daughter had failed the eleven plus and, as a result, would not get a place in the local grammar school.  Reading the Prime Minister’s recent announcement about reintroducing selective schools I was left wondering what had happened to my neighbour’s daughter.  Maybe, like others, she recovered from her mother’s disappointment and went on to achieve great things.  On the other hand, the damage to her self-esteem at such an early age might well have stayed with her throughout her life.

It was stories like this that were in the mind of politicians in the 1970s, when the decision was made to abolish grammar schools, although of course a handful still remain around the country.  In thinking about Theresa May’s proposals, it is worth noting that research from the Sutton Trust found that only 2.7% of pupils in these selective schools are entitled to free school meals, compared with 18% across all other schools. And in Kent, one of the few areas that has retained selective schools, children from low-income backgrounds do worse than anywhere else in the country.

A policy ‘out of the blue’?

Theresa May’s announcement came ‘out of the blue’, in that it was not a feature of the manifesto presented by the Conservative Party.  Indeed, it has led to some speculation as to why it was made at all, including a suggestion that it may have been a ploy to distract attention from the Government’s discomfort regarding what to do about Brexit.

Whatever the motivation, the reaction has been remarkable.  Rarely has there been such a consensus across political parties about an education policy proposal, with virtually all but UKIP and the right wing of the Conservative party rejecting the Prime Minister’s proposal.  An interesting example was the comment by the previous education secretary, Nicky Morgan, who described the proposals as being ‘weird’, in that they run the risk of increasing inequality and reducing social mobility, a view endorsed by most of the research community.

Much of the criticism echoes Morgan’s concerns.  It suggests that the expansion of grammar schools will lead to yet further segregation within a school system that has become increasingly fragmented as a result of changes made by recent governments, not least the expansion of academies and so-called free schools.  Another factor that adds to the sense of fragmentation is the marginalisation of local authorities, the traditional role of which was to coordinate provision and act as the champions of children, particularly those seen as being vulnerable.

Evidence of a pecking order

Our own research has thrown light on the nature of the problems within the English Education system. Specifically, we have shown how competition to attract pupils who are more likely to do well has, in many areas, led to a pecking order of schools, within which better off families seek to play the system to their own advantage.  At the same time, the lowest performing schools are further disadvantaged because of having to accept students excluded from other schools.  As a result, student achievement is strongly linked to social background, and gaps in achievement between those who do well and those who do badly are large and growing.

It is evident that the Prime Minister shares the concerns about the failure of the English education system to educate children and young people from poorer backgrounds effectively. Somehow, she seems to believe, her new form of grammar schools will be the answer. The reality is that this is likely to make things worse.  Indeed, the outgoing Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, comments, rather colourfully, that the idea that poor children will benefit from a return of grammar schools is ‘tosh’ and ‘nonsense’.

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Learner difference as a catalyst for change

In thinking of better ways to address the problems of the English education system it is worth looking to international developments.  There are, for example, countries that have made progress by adopting an approach that rejects selection, such as Canada, Finland and South Korea.  A common feature of these systems is their focus on ensuring that students who fall behind are helped to catch up.  In these contexts, pupils learn together within a common school and the vast majority attain relatively high levels of achievement, regardless of their personal and socio-economic circumstances.

Looking nearer to home, it is also worth noting that the remarkable progress of London schools over the last fifteen years or so has been brought about within a largely comprehensive system.  It has involved an investment in the development of teachers, the improvement of school leadership, and the sharing of expertise between schools.  A further feature has been the strengthening the capacity of schools to use learner differences as a catalyst for change.

 In order to build on encouraging developments such as these, then, there is a need for radical new thinking that will encourage greater collaboration and experimentation across the education service, rather than the further fragmentation of the system through the segregating of children into different types of schools.

In this sense, the Prime Minister’s proposals are, at the very least, a dangerous distraction.

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