'Is plan for more grammars a smokescreen to distract from problems such as Sats and academisation?'

Selection will take up all the headlines while major issues sitting in the government's in-tray remain unresolved, writes one celebrated education journalist

Richard Garner

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The problems are piling up on the government's doorstep as the new academic year begins in schools.

First off, there is the legacy from the decision to insist that all teenagers failing to achieve a GCSE C grade in maths and English resit their exams as a precondition for funding any future courses.

They were largely responsible for a fall in the overall A* to C grade pass rate of 2.1 percentage points. Indeed, none of those who gained an F, G or U grade in their first sitting gained a C grade the second time round.

It is a conundrum for ministers because, obviously, the 18 per cent of those who gained a D grade first time around but then went on to get at least a C grade and the 1 per cent who gained an E grade who did likewise have benefitted from the policy.

But the policy is largely born of a mistrust of the teaching profession: you don't know who's likely to get a C grade so therefore we're putting everybody in for it.

It is time to look at the policy again and perhaps recognise there are some young people who will not benefit from this iron-fist approach.. Not everyone is academically inclined and there can be rewarding paths out there for those who are not.

Secondly, we look to be heading towards another boycott of the Sats national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds unless there is (another) urgent review of the tests. Making them harder and increasing the "failure" rate has done nothing to improve the life chances of the thousands who will have to resit them in their first year of secondary school – and thus fall behind in other subjects which they might have found more stimulating.

Added to that you have the increasing birth rate and the fact that local authorities are hamstrung by rules which require all new schools to be free schools and academies – not necessarily opened in the areas of greatest need.

What will happen over academisation?

And lastly you have the policy of academisation and the White Paper published earlier this year, allowing for the removal of parent representatives from academy governing bodies. The Queen's Speech held out the prospect of legislation following the White Paper – but that was the programme of the old government. What will happen now? How much will the change of heart by David Cameron over the policy of compulsory academisation mean in the long term?

All in all, it makes for quite a challenging agenda for new education secretary Justine Greening to tackle.

Yet the noises from Westminster have been all about a return to grammar schools – not wholesale throughout the country, mark you, but possibly singling out the most disadvantaged areas of the country (where opposition to the selective system has been greatest traditionally or allowing new free schools to become selective). I just wish those that believed in a return to selection had the courage to go out and campaign for the return of secondary modern schools for 75 per cent of the population. The attitude from the top seems to be "never mind all that" and – amid reports of a Cabinet split – "we're going full-steam ahead".

I was at the Green Party conference last weekend (incidentally where, despite having two co-leaders, they appear to be remarkably less divided than most other opposition parties) and, talking to teachers (there are a lot of them in the Green Party), I was told there was a belief around that the May administration was using selection as a smokescreen to draw attention away from the other problems in education. It will, they argued, take up all the headlines as rows over selection always do – while the other problems will remain unsolved.

I hope that is a too cynical view by half of what is going on.

Richard Garner was education editor of The Independent for 12 years, and has been writing about education for more than three decades

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Richard Garner

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