Today’s political announcements about the shape of new school places in England might mark a turning point. Conversely, it might just be a neat solution to two problems that needed a resolution. First on grammar schools, and the £50 million funding for the expansion of places. Let me state at the outset that I am opposed to selective education, especially at age eleven. I believe that the Liberal Democrats should campaign to remove these schools even though the Lib Dems run councils in Sutton and now Kingston upon Thames in London that have such schools within the council boundaries.
The BBC has an interesting chart showing what has happened to the size of grammar schools between 2009-10 and 2015-16. Of the 20 such schools shown, all have expanded. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-44067719 Whether this means that the remaining 140 or so grammar schools haven’t changed their intakes isn’t mentioned. As I have remarked before, the government faced a dilemma. With pupil numbers rising sharply in many of the areas in the Home Counties and outer London where a disproportionate percentage of grammar schools are to be found, doing nothing would effectively decrease the percentage of pupils in these areas able to attend a selective school. Such a policy risked creating the worst of all worlds; not pleasing those that want the abolition of grammar schools, but also upsetting parents who would find it difficult to secure a place for their offspring in an increasingly competitive application process. Today’s announcement will, the Secretary of State no doubt hopes, placate the latter while doing no more than enrage the former, but without lasting political damage, and be seen as the best compromise on offer.
Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson Layla Moran has said in a press statement: “Grammar schools are the wrong answer to the wrong question. This money should be spent on local schools so that every young person across the country can get the education they need to prepare for the future.” But has stopped short of calling for the removal of these schools. Perhaps this is because such a policy is already implicit in the Lib Dems approach to education. I summed much of that approach as I see it in a recent chapter in a book by the Social Liberal Forum that I co-authored with Helen Flynn. A review of the book can be seen at https://www.libdemvoice.org/a-21st-century-liberal-approach-to-education-57473.html albeit written by a committed Liberal Democrat.
How the government will enforce the rules on selection, offered as a sop to opponents of selective schools and a fig leaf to make the policy more attractive overall, is an interesting question. I assume it is to be just a fig leaf. After all, will any new rules apply to applications for all the places at the schools that take the money or only to applicants for the additional places funded through the new cash for the extra places? This would potentially create two admission rounds: one for existing places and the other for the new Hinds’ places. The latter might perhaps only be open to pupils from certain primary schools with, say, a history of not sending any pupils or only very small numbers to the selective school sector. Alternatively, the rules might stipulate only pupils on Free School Meals in the year they apply for a place. One might envisage some other such permutations. All would need monitoring, plus a clear set of sanctions, especially where the selective schools are not co-educational schools, but the primary schools in the area are co-educational.
The other announcement today, about faith schools, is potentially more momentous and deserves a blog post of its own.