The crisis in secondary schools: where is it leading?

All kinds of schools in England are facing damaging budget cuts. Large meetings are being held all over the country where parents and teachers together are showing their opposition to Government cuts. Every concerned teacher or parent should join the Fair Funding for All Schools campaign, the front line in the growing campaign to save public education.

However it is important to understand the compound crisis affecting secondary schools. These meetings provide an important opportunity for teachers to tell parents what is happening. 

Academies and free schools

These were first set up (ostensibly) to rescue some struggling inner-city schools, but they have become a major asset-stripping strategy. Academy trusts are being given 125 year leases on buildings and land.

The government are turning a blind eye to the mismanagement of academy funds. There are constant scandals about corruption, with contracts (£500,000 in one chain alone) being awarded to firms belonging to relatives of headteachers or CEOs. Some of these notorious scandals are very close to Government.

The highest academy CEO is now receiving £420,000 a year, and many others are being paid more than the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile teachers’ pay increases have been held down to 1%.

Hidden selection

Academies and also many church schools now organise their own admissions. There are all kinds of hidden forms of selection of new pupils. Pupils with the best chance of getting high GCSE results are receiving preferential treatment, and children with special needs are being pushed away to other schools.

The comprehensive school system is being destroyed.

… and now grammar schools

In areas where children are divided up at age 11, children are divided up socially.

New research has shown that only 1 in 20 children from the poorest fifth of the population get into grammars, and only 1 in 7 of the next fifth – the so-called “just about managing” families that Theresa May claims she is helping.

You have to be in the top fifth to stand an evens chance of getting into grammar school.

Even so, the Government could come a cropper with this ill-conceived policy. Do Daily Mail readers understand it means consigning many of their children into second-class schools?

Unfair penalties for schools in deindustrialised areas

Secondary schools are now judged according to Progress 8, a measure of progress from age 11 to 16. It is abundantly clear that this is penalising schools in the poorest areas,

It is not surprising that young people growing up in poverty, and especially in areas with limited employment prospects, tend to fall behind more affluent students.

Whatever Progress 8 measures, it certainly isn’t the effectiveness of schools.

Obviously every teacher wants working-class students to obtain the best possible qualifications, but it is no good blaming them for the extreme levels of inequality in our society.

Just before he retired, Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw blamed teachers in the North of England and the Midlands for getting poorer results than London. “If you have an educated workforce in the North, that will feed into the wider economy.” Really? When did a few percent higher GCSEs reopen a steel works?

The Curriculum

The changes which Michael Gove made are still in place. Speaking and Listening is no longer part of English GCSE, and students have to complete a piece of writing against the clock rather than present their best work. Similar changes are taking place in many other subjects.

The curriculum has been weighted towards a narrow band of academic subjects (the EBacc subjects), with little opportunity to do practical or creative work. Young people are denied the opportunity to study the world they live in, or new media and technologies. No wonder so many have lost interest.

We could soon face a situation where schools will try to charge parents a fee for anything beyond a basic pen-and-paper curriculum.

School leavers understand the meagre opportunities for real apprenticeships and high-quality training. Young people in disadvantaged areas in particular face a future of precarious employment contracts on low pay, alternating with spells of unemployment.

The large meetings gathering to oppose budget cuts provide teachers with a great opportunity to explain the crisis in all its breadth, and build a solid resistance.

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Yorkshire conference – More Than A Score

Park Inn, North St, York YO1 6JF

This conference will bring together parents and teachers across the region to discuss the crisis facing our schools and how this is affecting children and young people.

It will provide an opportunity to discuss alternative visions for the future:

  • how do children learn best?
  • how can we combine high standards with creativity?
  • what is the purpose of education in the 21st Century?

Book your free ticket through Eventbrite

More Than A Score is a national coalition of professional organisations set up to campaign against tests which are undermining good primary education and causing high levels of stress to children. Read the Call to Action, and listen to what teachers and heads are saying about the tests on this video.  

For more information on the testing crisis, check the Reclaiming Schools blog.

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Little change promised on primary tests

The Government were clearly rattled by opposition to last year’s tests, including the parents’ protest last May and hundreds of responses to the Select Committee of MPs. Unfortunately, they are very slow to learn.

After many delays, the new proposals amount to very little:

  • Key Stage 1 tests will no longer be required – from 2022
  • Baseline tests in Reception to be reintroduced
  • The impossibly difficult KS2 tests will remain
  • The useless Phonics Check will stay
  • A new Multiplications Table test is to be introduced.

The tests at age 11 are a complete mess. They resulted in half of children moving on to secondary schools with a failure label round their necks in Reading, Writing or Maths.

This was particularly damaging to children growing up in poverty. Over half of children on free meals were failed in Maths alone.

The reading test showed no understanding of the gulf between children’s life experience and the texts. Children growing up in poverty were expected to make sense of a family holding a garden party… in a garden with a lake!

The writing test was just an extra test of grammar. Children were expected to shoehorn extra semicolons, subordinate clauses and frontal adverbials into their writing, however inappropriately. This made writing a sterile exercise, not the expression of meaning.

Altogether, large amounts of time were wasted simply practising the tests.

Tests for younger children were heavily affected by month of birth. August-born children were twice as likely to fail the phonics test, and similarly KS1. The phonics test is almost useless as a diagnostic tool and results bear little resemblance to later success in real reading.

The Government have learnt nothing from last year’s Baseline fiasco. They still believe that it is possible to test 4-year-olds and get reliable results. They see this as a way of measuring the ‘effectiveness’ of a school.

Baseline tests in reception are doomed to failure. They are a fantasy dressed up as science.

The most experienced provider CEM is only able to predict a child’s subsequent grade correctly in 4 cases out of 10. Even observations, once turned into a score, are not a reliable measure.

Labelling young children as high or low ability, good or poor potential is unethical.

Professionals should not be made complicit in flawed judgements which lower expectations and seal the child’s fate.


Reclaiming Schools is an active member of the More Than A Score coalition. 


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Who will vote for secondary moderns?

The elephant in the room of Theresa May’s plan to open more grammar schools is – secondary modern schools.

Selecting a minority of children at age 11 for grammar schools means an inferior kind of school for those who failed. This is what happened from 1945 to the 1970s across most of the country: around 20% passed the 11 plus exam and got a place in a grammar school, whilst the vast majority went to secondary moderns. This still happens in some parts of England, even though the secondary moderns in places like Kent are euphemistically labelled “comprehensive”.

Very few children from the poorest families get into grammar schools: around 1 in 20 from the poorest fifth of the population. 94% go to secondary moderns.

The Prime Minister isn’t even claiming that grammar schools will help the poorest fifth of children (roughly speaking, those on free school meals). More cautiously, her claim is that it will help the “JAMs” – the families that are  “just about managing”. How true is this?

The JAMs are the next-lowest fifth. In grammar school areas, 6 out of 7 children (87%) from JAMs families end up in secondary modern schools.

From the middle fifth, around 1 in 4 children enter grammar schools at age 11, while about 3 out of 4 (77%) go to secondary moderns.

Even the next-to-the-top fifth of families by income suffer a second-class education for 2 out of 3 (67%) of their children.

It is only the most affluent fifth whose children have an evens change of getting into grammar school. Even from these families, 48% will go on to secondary moderns unless they pay private school fees.

Does the average Daily Mail reader understand this yet? It’s time they did.

Is this what run-in-the-mill Conservatives voted for?

The Government could have a fight on their hands.

All the photos for this article were taken at secondary modern schools around the 1960s. The data comes from recent research by Simon Burgess, Claire Crawford and Lindsey Macmillan reported in a recent Reclaiming Schools blog post.  

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Harold Rosen: an inspiration for teachers today

announcing an inspiring new book
Harold Rosen: Writings on life, language and learning 1958-2008

Harold Rosen was one of the great reformers of English teaching. His work has just been republished, providing a challenge to the deadening practices of the National Curriculum – its obsession with grammatical terms, its neglect of modern texts, children writing to formula to get through tests, and the constant threat of failure. He believed in respect for working-class children’s languages and lives. The editor John Richmond explains the significance for today’s teachers. 

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New research exposes grammar school myth

New research by expert statisticians from the Universities of Bristol and Warwick, and the Institute of Education (UCL), demonstrates the dishonesty of Theresa May’s claim that grammar schools will benefit families that are “just about managing”.

Simon Burgess, Claire Crawford and Lindsey Macmillan show how grammar schools only benefit the very rich.

Graphs on their blog for The Conversation look at areas where grammar schools and 11-plus selection exists. They show clearly that children from families in the ‘just about managing’ category (the next-lowest fifth of the population) only have a 12% chance of attending grammar school.

Only the most affluent can be sure that most of their children will get into grammar school in these areas. Even just below the top 10% by income, less than half of children get a grammar school place.

Just as shocking, this research compared the chances of children with equally high levels of attainment but different social backgrounds. Specifically they look at children at the 80th percentile of attainment in KS2 tests (i.e. the start of the top fifth). Those from the poorest fifth have only a 25% chance of grammar school, whilst those from the most affluent fifth have a 70% chance.

England has one of the most unfair school systems in the developed world. The government’s plan to expand grammar schools will add to injustice and diminish the very limited social mobility even further.

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Grammar school expansion has gathered little support


The Government have had nothing but bad news since announcing their intention to expand grammar schools. Opposition has come from all quarters, and there is widespread scepticism about Theresa May’s ‘social justice’ claim.

To be precise, she doesn’t pretend any longer that children receiving free meals will have much chance of getting into grammar schools. Currently only around 3% of grammar school pupils qualify for free school meals. That is why the Prime Minister is speaking in terms of families that are ‘struggling’ or ‘just managing’ – a very broad group nowadays!

Here are just a few of the opponents of grammar school expansion who have spoken out:

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