Plans being developed by the government to allow the creation of more grammar schools will not amount to a return to a nationwide system of selective education, TES understands.
The proposals are expected to be modest in scale, with a strict focus on providing for “hardworking” middle-income families.
Downing Street has not denied reports that the new prime minister, Theresa May, is planning to overturn the ban on new grammar schools as part of her social mobility agenda.
An announcement is not expected until October at the earliest but details of what is being considered are already leaking out.
A well-placed Whitehall source told TES it is likely that the government will introduce about 20 new grammar schools, targeted in a handful of “typical working-class areas”, such as on the outskirts of Birmingham and other provincial cities.
“It is unlikely they will try and bring in thousands of grammar schools,” the source said. “Instead it will be a handful here and there, in normal working-class areas.”
The new selective schools are expected to be required to admit a significant proportion of pupils in receipt of free school meals.
Another suggestion is that the new grammar schools operate strict catchment areas that encompass communities from low- and middle-income backgrounds.
With plans still fluid, key players in the schools system have started to pitch their ideas of how the new academic selection might work. Toby Young, chief executive of the West London Free School Trust and an early pioneer of the free-school movement, is putting forward a “third way” proposal that would allow partial selection in academies and free schools.
But ministers and their advisers may already have other free-school models in mind. “What they want is to introduce a London Academy of Excellence (LAE), but for 11- to 18-year-olds,” one source said.
The LAE is a highly successful selective sixth-form college in Newham, which this year sent eight of its students to Oxbridge. The school has been nicknamed the “Eton of the East End” for its impressive results.
“This government will be far less interested in raising the bottom 10 per cent and more concerned about helping low- and middle-income families. In-work families with a reliance on public services,” the source added.
A separate source, who met with No 10’s policy unit, agreed, adding that Downing Street wanted to shift its focus to middle-income families.
“They said they wanted to be genuinely radical when it came to education, and that they wanted to shift their focus towards the ‘hardworking’ middle-income families as well as the vulnerable families,” the source said.
The driving force behind the new push for grammar schools is understood to be Nick Timothy, Ms May’s joint chief of staff and the former director of the free-schools charity New Schools Network.
Mr Timothy has publicly supported the re-introduction of grammar schools, telling a newspaper last year “where parents want some selective schools, I don’t really see why we have a fairly arbitrary rule saying they can’t open them”.
TES understands that Mr Timothy would favour using the free-schools policy to reintroduce grammars, but with the added requirement that a strict allocation go to students in receipt of free school meals.
Jim Skinner, chief executive of the Grammar School Heads Association, said: “It would make sense for the government to prioritise areas of disadvantage.
“The idea of using free schools to offer a grammar school education to more young people is a very positive step. Although we would add, at a time of pressure on secondary school places, that areas which are already basically selective, such as Kent and Buckinghamshire, should be able to open more grammars.”
Margaret Tulloch, from Comprehensive Future, a campaign group against selective education, said: “Selection is selection.
“Even if they open schools with all these arrangements it will still tell some children that they have failed at the age of 10 and that is not an education system that is fit for the 21st century.”
Plea for partial selection
Toby Young , the journalist and free-school pioneer, has put forward an “alternative” to a reintroduction of grammar schools, calling for academies and free schools to be allowed to partially select.
Mr Young, chief executive of the West London Free School Academy Trust, which runs four schools, believes the government should introduce a “third way” that enables schools to select up to a quarter of students.
“My proposal is that the government allows academies and free schools in the secondary phase to be able to select up to 25 per cent of their pupils according to general ability,” Mr Young said. “If a child applied for one of these places then they would sit a general ability test.
“But schools could only take advantage of this opportunity if they took a higher percentage of free-school-meals pupils than the local average.”
Mr Young originally promoted his first free school on the premise of delivering “a grammar-school curriculum to an all-ability intake”.
Today, he describes himself as “neutral” on the issue of grammar schools, but said evidence showed they “did not do much for social mobility”.
“They cream off all the most able students,” he continued. “That creates a sense that neighbouring schools are being left behind. It also makes it harder for the neighbouring schools to attract good teachers. But you wouldn’t have those disadvantages with partially selective schools, or if you did, they would be diluted.”
The legislation game
Changes to the law to allow new selective schools are likely to be “tacked on” to an existing bill, TES understands.
Parliament is likely to split over a return to grammar schools. Some Tory backbenchers have already expressed opposition and, with a slim majority, Theresa May’s government will face a tough task to push the changes through.
A well-placed source said that any change in the law will come in the shape of a clause to limit the chances of it being defeated.
“Downing Street wouldn’t be stupid enough to introduce a new grammar school bill,” the source said. “It will be a clause tacked on to the Education for All Bill or similar.
“MPs will not be able to vote on it on a line by line basis, meaning that Tory MPs against selection would either have to vote against an entire government bill or abstain. No 10 is likely to come down hard on anyone who votes against such a bill.”
This is an article from the 12 August edition of TES. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. This week's TES magazine is available at all good newsagents.