Grammar Schools: a cunning plot?

We all know the DfE has been told to save money. After the bountiful years under Labour and the coalition governments has come the harsh Tory winter of austerity. However, surely nobody thought of grammar schools as a government economy drive? But, if the Conservatives do succeed in helping the disadvantaged and the just missing groups in society (hang on a minute isn’t there no such thing as society in a Tory world?) find a place a grammar school, then either grammar schools take a bigger share of the pupil population or some pupils has to be displaced.

That’s where the Tories cunning plot comes in. Who better to displace from grammar schools than those that can afford to pay for private education. Each one of these children driven from the state system saves £35-50,000 from the education budget over their lifetime of secondary schooling. Assume 500 grammar schools with 10 children displaced from each: that’s over £25 million saved in the first year alone. Be brave and displace half of grammar school present intakes into the private sector and the saving over the school life of a cohort runs to about a billion pounds after allowing for inflation in a fully selective system. That would certainly help the Treasury fund the growth in pupil numbers that is about to hit the secondary sector. There might also be a fall in primary pupils in state schools as well, as parents sought grammar crammers to help fight for the remaining open access places in selective schools

A fanciful notion? Well we will see what the Secretary of State has to offer displaced parents under her new proposals or whether she will increase the percentage of the year group going to selective schools. Either way, what the Secretary of State says about the rest of the pupils in our schools and their education will be just as important as what she says about grammar schools.

Even at the height of the drive for the three tier system in the 1950s the Conservatives had to issue a little recalled White Paper; Education for all; a new drive, ahead of the 1958 general election, to reassure parents of children attending secondary modern schools or still being educated in the remaining all-through elementary schools. Well, thanks to Labour, all-through schools are flavour of the month again: although not with me.  But, those parents that don’t win places at grammar schools for their children, many of whom vote Conservative, will need reassurance just as much as those the Secretary of State is trying to offer a grammar school place to in her speech.

In Oxfordshire, a well-educated primary population could more than fill traditional grammar school places and still leave many parents disappointed. In such areas it is difficult to see what the benefits of grammar schools are for the majority of the population.

In the 21st century, the Secretary of State has a responsibility to achieve a good school for every child. Putting the clock back is no way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Forster’s Education Act in 2020.


A tale of Two Counties

My attention has been drawn to a publication called: A Tale of Two Counties: Reflections on Secondary Education 50 Years after Circular 10/65. Written by Nuala Burgess from Kings College London for the group Comprehensive Future and published on the 25 January 2017 it is downloadable free from

As one reviewer wrote, this publication is written in an easy to follow style by Kings College researcher Nuala Burgess. It looks at secondary education in two English counties that in socio-economic terms are similar, but in educational terms are poles apart. Both Buckinghamshire and Hampshire have been Conservative controlled since God was a boy. Yet the approach of these two Tory councils is completely different.

As we know Bucks has retained selective schools and has an entry test for its grammar schools, whereas Hants chose a non-selective system mostly based upon 11-16 comprehensives that grew out of the secondary modern schools, with its selective schools mostly becoming sixth form colleges; at that time part of the school system.

It doesn’t pay to be poor in Bucks, where few children on free school meals make it into the county’s 13 grammar schools. Presumably, Conservative in Bucks either think poor children at thick or are prepared to avoid asking the question ‘why do those pupils entering grammar schools largely come from better off families’. Might it be something to do with the private tutor industry that thrives in and around the edges of the county?

In Hampshire, Tory councillors are more likely to be concerned about the education of all pupils. This fact is reflected in the different approaches to converting schools to academy status in the two counties.

In many ways, this is a reflection of the on-going debate about whether schooling is a local or a national service? In Hampshire, even though the County no longer has responsibility for school budgets per se, the County does seem to feel a responsibility for the education of the young people within its boundaries. I wonder whether that is also the view in Bucks, or at least to the same extent. Judging by their recent attempt to change the home to school transport policy, I feel councillors have a different and more hands-off approach.

Since those that attend the county’s non-selective schools are likely to remain in Bucks after leaving education and will mostly enter the local labour market, it might be thought that in investment terms ensuring the best education of these pupils would be beneficial to the future prosperity of the county. After all, the grammar school pupils mostly go to university and can then end up working anywhere.

Perhaps some of lack of productivity as a nation can be put down to Tory councils such as Buckinghamshire not doing enough to ensure an education system that develops the skills and abilities of all pupils regardless of their background. For a government that wants to improve the national productivity levels to embark on a return to selective education seems odd to say the least.


Selection doesn’t help social mobility

The latest Report from the Education Policy Institute, headed by former Lib Dem Education Minister, David Laws states at the end of the summary:

‘Overall, our analysis supports the conclusions reached by the OECD for school systems across the world – there is no evidence that an increase in selection would have any positive impact on social mobility.’ Page 5

That just about says it all. The rest is an interesting read and shows the strength of feeling in some areas about the issue of re-introducing selection, mostly, however, areas where there are already low levels of disadvantage. The authors conclude that;

We therefore conclude that it will be difficult for the government to identify areas for grammar school expansion that will:

  • avoid damage to pupils who do not access the new selective places; and
  • have public demand for new selective places. Those locations that do remain are unlikely to be areas of high disadvantage. A more promising approach in the most disadvantaged and low attaining areas may therefore be to focus more effort on increasing the quality of existing non selective school places, as has been successfully achieved in areas such as London over the last 20 years

The message seems to be, find out what worked in London and decide how it can be transferred to the rest of the country rather than create more selective schools. This is a rational and evidence based suggestion. However, this isn’t an issue where the government is probably very interested in the evidence. The aim of introducing more grammar schools was political; to shore up the right wing of the Conservative Party and attract back into the fold UKIP voters that were enticed towards voting for that Party because it offered them the notion of re-introducing grammar schools.

However, the question remains, in a national education service, such as we now have in England, what are the rules regarding who decides the shape of the education system? Is there to be any local consultation or can someone with no local ties to an area submit a bid to the DfE to open a selective school regardless of the consequences on the other schools in the area? Some clarify would be helpful. Can this type of decision create extra costs for council-tax payers through additional transport costs? If so, it would seem unfair if there was no local say in the matter. And what of the fact that many selective schools are single-sex schools. Does it matter if new selective schools impact upon the gender balance of other schools in the area?

Nick Gibb, the current Minister recently told the Education Select Committee that new selective schools would be established in response to parent demand. We don’t know how that demand is to be measured or the cost of collecting the information. What we do know is that time spent on the grammar school project at the DfE could have been better spent on other more urgent issues.


Tories & Grammar Schools

As most followers of education know, Buckinghamshire was one of the counties that refused to fall into line with the 1976 Education Act and produce a programme for the removal of their grammar schools. As a result, it retains a selective system across the county after having seen Milton Keynes and its comprehensives split off in the 1990s to become a unitary council.

One might think that as a result of being a selective county, parents in Buckinghamshire wouldn’t be very interested in the present Tory inspired debate on the topic of more selective schools. Not a bit of it. While Mrs May, as Prime Minister, is talking about increasing the number of pupils from deprived backgrounds attending selective schools, or at least I think that is what she is saying, Bucks County Council has consulted on a proposal that would make it even more difficult for such pupils to attend grammar schools, especially if they lived in the rural parts of the county.

In a consultation on changing the home to school transport policy earlier this year, the county said;

This potential change would mean that free school transport would only be provided to the nearest secondary school to your home address.  The school could be located in Buckinghamshire or in a neighbouring county and could be an Upper, Grammar (for qualified children only) or Comprehensive.

As I read the paragraph above, if the nearest school is a secondary modern, even if the grammar school is next door to it, you won’t be provided in the future  with free transport to the grammar school unless it is the nearest school, even if you pass the entrance test and are offered a place. This is interesting in the town of Buckingham, where the grammar and secondary modern schools are adjacent to each other: those coming from the north could have the secondary modern as their nearest schools and those from the south, the grammar school. That is frankly madness if it is the case as a result of the consultation being accepted.

If this view is also accepted by government, it would seem to fly in the face of helping more children from deprived backgrounds to attend selective schools, if on top of uniform and other costs their parents also had to pay the transport cost of attending a grammar school, but not a secondary modern.

Personally, as regular reads know, I would do away with selective schools and make all schools achieve the very best for all pupils in an inclusive social setting. How schools are organised internally to achieve that aim is a different matter.

Perhaps, because transport to school is free for all in London, Mrs May, an MP whose constituency abuts Buckinghamshire to the south, hasn’t picked up on how her party is behaving with regard to grammar schools and widening participation. The solution of free transport to school of choice for all, as in London.

Right issue: wrong solution

Mrs May clearly identified some of the key issues facing the school system of this country in her speech to the Tory faithful in Birmingham. Ethnic minorities, white working class boys, house prices near popular schools, the issues are well known. Her solution; more selective schools. Nothing I have read yet about solving the teacher supply crisis and whether more selective schools would make that worse. Nothing either about the curriculum or ensuring enough schools in the right places.

Readers of this blog will know I don’t want a return to a selective school system. Interestingly, the TES has been looking at indicators from schools across Kent and Medway where there are grammar schools, secondary moderns and some comprehensives, including some faith schools. Do secondary moderns as a group have more vacancies per school than grammar schools and, because the census is in November when vacancies are low anyway, do they also have more temporary filled posts than selective schools, indicating a possible greater challenge in recruiting staff with the qualifications the school is seeking?

If the aim is to ensure achievement for all, the government will have to ask whether a National Funding Formula will be crafted in such a way as to assist in helping all those that currently don’t achieve as well as could be expected of them. The risk is that the Tories don’t really want to help everyone, but only to help those with aspirations they cannot currently fulfil. Listening to the Secretary of State on the radio talking about how well the three per cent of pupils in selective schools on free school meals do, when the average school has 14% of such pupils, didn’t fill me with hope. I have yet to hear anything from the Tories about those that don’t go to grammar school and how their aspirations will be met: enough teachers to go around would be a good start.

As I have mentioned in an earlier post, the organisation of our schools is a probably a key issue for many parents in the Witney Constituency where the Woodstock and Chipping Norton localities have the highest Key Stage 2 performance in Oxfordshire.  This means that if some places in a new selective system are reserved for pupils on free school meals and the competition for the other places is heightened by the addition of many pupils currently destined for the independent sector some children would end up not in selective schools, whereas if they lived in another part of the country they might have passed the selection test. Such a system probably won’t be good for the local economy, as it might make Oxfordshire a less attractive place to live and educate your children if the lottery of location was replaced by the gamble around the selection cut-off level each year. It seems likely that even if primary schools improve their results, the same number of children will fail to gain a place at a selective school each year, but just at a higher level of education.

We must improve the school system for those it currently fails, but not at the risk of failing some that currently succeed.


Why are school under-performing?

There are times when I wonder whether the Tory announcements on grammar schools are merely a smokescreen to draw attention away from the fact that they haven’t been able to recruit enough teachers? Even if they genuinely believe that more selection will help some pupils do better, their responsibility as a government is to offer hope to the parents of all pupils and also to all pupils. The purpose of government is not to encourage any pupil to feel a failure. While Society accepts all cannot win prizes in competitions, education isn’t a competition, but rather an opportunity to draw out the best in everyone.

Rather than concentrating on what happens at eleven, when much of the damage is done, Mrs May might reflect on whether allowing local councils to axe Children’s and Sure Start centres was a good idea? My view is that the more we do to close the gap in the early years, the more that investment pays off later. The trouble is that the return isn’t a quick one, although narrowing the gap at the age when formal schooling starts might be helpful. The report last week of more children starting school not properly toilet trained, along with other reports of language and social skills gaps, shows the gulf we have allowed to develop in society between those with and those without. Hopelessness can breed extremism and all the risks history has shown us throughout the twentieth century that were associated with the consequences of allowing it to develop in a society. One wonder how far better education has helped create a situation where there are currently no wars in the Western hemisphere.

So, rather than concentrating on grammar schools and a way of finding an alternative to Free School Meals to measure deprivation, the Tories might want to look at the characteristics of children that fall behind expected rates of progress. Some have special needs, and these should be catered for. But, for others it may be attendance, where they sit in the class, the degree of encouragement from home or one of several other reasons that early years teachers can identify.

At present, the Pupil Premium helps one group of materially deprived children, but there may be others that are emotionally deprived, change school frequently and in mid-year, suffer from poor attendance or are caught by the digital divide, whether absolute or just governed by broadband speeds. These may not always be the same children. In this day and age we should know what works and help classroom teachers to identify and use the appropriate techniques, drawing on extra funding as appropriate. If, for instance the extra funding London schools receive over most of the rest of the country is shown to produce better results in a matched sample of pupils then we need to ask whether dealing with that issue should come ahead of creating more grammar schools.

What we need is a focus on quality assurance as a model and not quality control where those that pass the quality threshold go one way at eleven and those that don’t are sent down another path. Wherever that happens it is the wrong model.

The responsibility of government

In a previous post on this blog, I argued that what matters in education is the contract between parents and the State for those families that take up the offer of free schooling. This makes the present debate about selective education very important. I have yet to hear either a Minister or indeed any Tory MP talk about anything other than grammar schools. What is the likely effect of creating more grammar schools for the system as a whole?

Here are some questions to ask supporters of more grammar schools

Which other school systems across the world select at age 11 and are any in the top 10 PISA rankings?

What percentage of pupils should go to grammar schools in any area and is this fixed by pupil numbers or pupil places? This matters in a period of rapidly rising pupil numbers such as we will see over the next decade.

There are a higher proportion of single sex schools amongst grammar schools than secondary schools as a whole. This may be because otherwise girls might take a large proportion of the places available. How would you address this issue?

Until recently, grammar schools received more funding than secondary moderns in many authorities. Age weighted pupil funding and Pupil Premium altered that. Will new grammar schools be funded in the same way as existing schools?

What appends to schools that currently select by aptitude?

Who pays the transport costs in rural areas for pupils going to grammar schools?

With the county council elections along with some other urban areas in 2017 should parental appetite for grammar schools be tested at the ballot box?

Where do UTCs and Studio Schools fit into the new scheme of schools? Isn’t it better to provide specialisms from 14 onwards rather than at age 11?

What responsibility does the government have to all pupils it educates?

How does the government intend to ensure disadvantaged pupils, late developers and pupils with SEN will be able to gain a place at the new selective schools?

Who will bear the cost of setting up any new system?

What will be the effect on teacher supply if some teachers are excluded from teaching a section of the school population?

Why wait until 11 to select, why not do so at the primary school level based on potential?

It goes without saying that this muddled approach to our school system serves nobody very well. What is must not do is put off potential teachers wondering whether to sign-up for a teacher preparation courses starting next year. Indications are that my post of 25th August worrying about 2016 recruitment may have been close to the mark in some subjects and I don’t want 2017 to be even worse.

The government must declare how far we have a national system and how far local areas can still decide their own style of education. Our economy in the 21st century needs an education system fit for purpose note one just for vote winning.