A fatal distraction

KayAndrews.jpgKay Andrews on the likely dire consequences of expanded school selection

At a time when – globally and domestically – the country needs clear thinking, clever solutions, and humane policies, the Prime Minister, brilliantly, has decided that a return to grammar schools holds the solution. She has few friends in this conviction and it is a rare gift to have wound up her ex-Chancellor, ex- Secretary of States for Education, trade unions, teachers, most of the Tory-supporting press, parents, and the Labour Party in principled and professional opposition.

Mrs May says that this is what parents want; that grammar schools work for the poorest children who are presently excluded from the opportunities that only they can provide; that they accelerate social mobility; that they close the attainment gap between rich and poor children; that they can inspire all schools to achieve more.

Each of these fallacies can be picked apart by reference to history, experience, logic and evidence. Much of it has been done in recent weeks by authoritative bodies and educationalists (including of course the Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw). And most importantly by people who know from bitter experience the lifelong impact of being declared a failure at 11 years old – before they even had a chance to know what they were good at. Most parents, for example, when polled, may like the idea of grammar schools in theory, but do not want a return to selection. It is an understandable contradiction, given the myths that have accumulated.

All these false notions are bundled together by Mrs May in her discovery of the notion of ‘meritocracy’ (a.k.a: ‘the Great Meritocracy’). Unfortunately, she profoundly misunderstands the meaning of the term.

Grammar schools, as Michael Young (who invented the term and wrote the book) believed, were the enemies of a true meritocracy – which depended on the best opportunities and resources being available to all without discrimination. The evidence shows that working class children who got into grammars left earlier and with fewer ‘O’ levels. 

Also, grammar schools were not responsible for accelerating social mobility. That was achieved by a fast changing economy and labour market in the 1950s and 1960s. But they did have a documented and devastating effect on their local schools and communities, breeding failure, resentment, and lack of ambition.

The fatuous title of the Green Paper, ‘Schools that Work for Everyone’ is certainly a sentiment that everyone can agree on. But grammars are designed, specifically, not to work for everyone.

Mrs May claims that they bring greater opportunities for parents and children who are now losing out in education. At best, this is a bizarre commentary on seven years of Conservative education policy; at worst, it is profoundly misleading. Grammars do get better academic results. So they should. They take in fewer poorer children (2.5% on free school meals, compared with a 13% average across the state sector); significant numbers from the private sector; and many children who have been intensively coached. A factor which, in itself, means some parents can game the system to great advantage. No level playing field here.   

Yes – they do close the attainment gap between poor and rich children; but only within schools. Far from motivating some institutions to do better, the evidence reveals negative impacts on others locally, so poorer children in selective areas do worse rather than better. So much for the Great Meritocracy.  

If Grammars are the answer, why are there so few in London, and no demand for more - when the capital’s schools face the most demanding circumstances? Because London has made comprehensives work for all London children to a standard previously never achieved.

If Grammars are the answer, why does every country in the world not go down this road? Because successful countries know that in an interdependent and very dangerous world, lavishing resources on a minority of academically gifted children is to miss the point – fatally.

Children need to be able to work with the world as it will be – highly competitive, highly risky – from the earliest age. They all need the best possible teaching and learning to acquire literacy and language, technical competence, the power to think creatively and work collaboratively; as well as a curriculum that stretches in all directions.

A wise and successful country would be prioritising the early years, and what happens in schools. It would be investing in professional development and leadership, and in innovative schemes like Teach First and families learning together. As well as both the new University Technical Colleges, and innovative ways of breaking down historic cultural barriers between academic and professional disciplines.

If we did all of this, we might be able to face a post-Brexit future – with all its risks and exclusions – with greater confidence and more collective purpose.

The alternative, set out in the government’s Green Paper – with its central and discredited principle – will reinforce a view of a country that rejects evidence, and relies on nostalgia. A country which, ultimately, may work for no-one.

Baroness Kay Andrews is a backbench Labour Peer and a former government minister

Published 13th October 2016

*A shorter version of this blog was published by Politics Home

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