The following piece appeared in today’s Oxford Mail comment column.
What is the nature of the contract between the State and those parents who entrust their children’s education to the government? As we approach the 150th anniversary of the State’s offer of free education, a right that was originally introduced by the Liberal government after 1870, this question is as real today as it was then.
Indeed, with the local Tory enthusiasm for the re-introduction of grammar schools, as outlined by Oxfordshire’s Cabinet member with responsibility for education in this paper last week, the issue is of real concern to many parents locally. I did wonder whether the enthusiasm with which the local Tories have embraced grammar schools is just a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from other cuts in the education funding and early years’ budgets, including the removal of much of the Children’s Centre work from rural areas and my own division in north Oxford rather than a genuine desire to turn back the clock.
Grammar schools became a core part of Tory Party policy after the passing of the 1944 Education Act, although it was the Labour government of the late 1940s that laid down the basis for the transformation into the system of grammar and secondary modern schools. With many school leavers at that time still destined for field, factory or, for many girls, family life, grammar schools satisfied the needs of a largely muscle-powered economy for a small number of more educated individuals.
Now, fast forward seventy years and we have an entirely different economy; young people are staying in education longer and our economy requires a much better educated workforce. The market porter of yesterday, pushing a barrow, has been replaced by the fork-lift truck driver and even they are increasingly being replaced by computer operatives running automated warehouses staffed by robots such as those seen in the recent BBC TV series on how modern factories operate. Less muscle, more brain power is the key to the modern economy.
In Oxfordshire, the demand for educated individuals to staff the wealth-creating and knowledge generating industries cannot be satisfied by selecting a fraction of the school population at age eleven. There is a case for recognising that between 14-16 pupils can make judgements about their future intentions, but even then closing doors too firmly, as grammar schools so often do, isn’t a good idea.
There are far more important ways to spend limited funds on education than introducing grammar schools: better careers advice, ensuring enough teachers for all children to be taught by a properly qualified teacher and creating a curriculum designed for the twenty-first century are just three of the more important uses for education funding.
However, the most important reason many supporters of grammar schools put forward for their re-introduction is the desire to improve social mobility. Too often there is no evidence to support their argument other than anecdotal recollections of individuals who prospered in the so-called golden age of grammar schools. To test the current picture I looked at the percentage of pupils with free school meals in the 163 grammar schools across England in January as a possible proxy measure for social mobility.
Nationally, 14.1% of secondary pupils were eligible for free school meals. No grammar school reached that figure; indeed only six grammar schools had more than 6% of their pupils eligible for free school meals; 66 grammar schools had less than 2% of pupils on Free School Meals.
It is time for us to work together to create an education system that works for the benefit of all, not the advantage of the few: that means a fully comprehensive system with opportunities for all from primary school to post-16 provision.