In response to the Government’s May 2017 Schools White Paper, the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) and Times Educational Supplement (TES) on Wednesday hosted ‘The Big General Election Grammar Schools Debate’ to discuss whether there is a place for grammar schools in the UK education system. I was lucky enough to go along.
The evening opened with an introduction of the history of grammar schools and the headlines from associated research. The grammar school system was developed in the post-war period of the 1940s and 1950s. Those on both sides of the debate agreed that from the start grammar schools did what they were meant to do: they provided an environment in which academic excellence flourished. It is accepted that the approach to teaching, and the quality of teachers delivered positive results. By accepting only those already achieving highly, teachers were drawn to a place where they would have to differentiate less, teach the sorts of things that inspired them to return to the classroom and were motivated by the end result – hordes of school leavers entering red-brick universities. Proponents of the plans cited Oxbridge entry statistics from the time as indicative of the success of grammars, as the percentage of pupils previously educated at fee-paying institutions fell, to be replaced by those from the newly-established grammars.
But throughout this time it was said, mainly by Labour politicians and egalitarian educationalists, that the selective education system reinforced class division and middle-class privilege. Parents came to resent a test that could consign their children to a school they considered second rate. In 1965, the government ordered local education authorities to start phasing out grammar schools and secondary moderns, and replace them with a comprehensive system. Some were slower to adopt the new approach however, which is why we see grammar schools today in places such as Kent and Buckinghamshire.
Next came the debate. On one side we had the proponents of extending the grammar school system across the country, made up of Peter Hitchins and Harriet Sergeant from the Mail on Sunday and Centre for Policy Studies respectively. They were joined by Mark Morrin from ResPublica, a non-partisan think tank that seeks to establish a new economic, social and cultural settlement for the UK. The proponents were proponents of varying degree. Hitchins wants 1,500 new grammars built, Sergeant wants what makes them successful replicated in current comprehensives, and Morrin wants them only as a catalyst for social mobility in the areas worst failing the poorest pupils.
On the other side we had journalist Melissa Benn, General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Leaders Mary Bousted, and Lewis Iwu, Director at the Fair Education Alliance.
It was acknowledged that currently, grammar schools are disproportionately made up of those from families with above average income, and do not serve the poorest pupils well at all. This is largely down to wealthy families paying for private tutors to coach their children to pass the entry test, with one panellist claiming parents are paying up to £5,000 in tuition fees before putting their child in front of the paper. Those in favour of grammars argued that this option will be removed as the tests will be revised to become ‘tutor-proof’. However, the opponents of expansion simply don’t believe this is possible.
Both sides were also in agreement that even in areas without grammar schools, selection is still taking place but on postcode rather than academic achievement. Those parents with the funds have the ability to move to the catchment area of a well-performing local comprehensive, whereas those without the means get the place they are given, often with little regard to preference. Grammar schools would remove this loop hole. But, the opponents argued, why fight selection with selection? Why not put the state admissions process back under the control of local authorities, widen catchment areas and introduce a system of random allocation by ballot?
It was also argued that to boost social mobility, most new grammars would have a quota they needed to fill with pupils from low-income backgrounds. Those getting in are sure to see high-quality teaching and a wealth of associated opportunities, but the pass threshold is likely to be lowered for those from low-income backgrounds if the quota is difficult to fill. But, if they’re no longer accepting only the highest achievers, won’t that mean they no longer fit what it means to be a ‘grammar school’?
It seemed that everyone had an answer for everything, and both sides gave compelling arguments to justify their position on the big question. But given the title of the debate, ‘Schools that work for everyone?’, the answer must surely be no. The problem that no one really has a solution for is what happens to those who don’t get in? Even if collaboration grows between grammars and other local schools and standards rise as a result, it’s surely not the case that everyone’s a winner? By refocusing the time and funds allocated to the proposed expansion of grammar schools to bringing each and every school up to the highest standard, we could ensure equal opportunities for all.
You can watch or download a podcast of the full debate here.
Written by Elly Turnbull, London Programme Coordinator and Policy Lead