'Increasing selection is not a 21st-century answer – we must not put the clock back'

9th September 2016 at 12:50
Grammar schools
We shouldn't look to the past for solutions that aren't appropriate for the modern world, says a headteachers' leader

Grammar schools do a good job for the young people they educate, but there is no international evidence that increasing selection will result in higher standards. And there is no mandate in the Conservative party manifesto to reintroduce grammar schools or introduce more selection into our education system.

The education system that existed when grammar schools were introduced across England is wholly different from the one that exists today. As Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said this morning, the education landscape has changed fundamentally. Our ambition as a nation should be to deliver excellent outcomes for all. We must not put the clock back.

The grammar school/secondary modern approach is a model for a period when the UK did not need mass education for a highly skilled labour market. Now, a much larger proportion of jobs require higher-order skills and knowledge. It therefore makes no sense to revert to a system where we assume only a quarter of pupils are going to do the knowledge-based jobs of the future.

The education secretary said this morning that the government wants to consult on proposals for all schools to be given the opportunity to become grammar schools. She was adamant that this is the best way of making sure all children had the best education. She is right that young people in grammar schools do better on average – one study suggests that pupils in grammar schools achieve between up to three-quarters of a GCSE grade more than similar pupils in other schools.

Failing the majority

But the point is that while the minority of pupils in grammar schools do slightly better, the remaining majority of pupils who are not educated in grammar schools do slightly worse. So while a selective system has a small positive impact on some young people, it actually has the effect of widening educational gaps for all pupils.

Increasing selection cannot and will not provide a means by which to "fight against burning injustices", as Theresa May said she would do in her first speech as prime minister, standing on the steps of Number 10. More selection may well create a less equal society.

The education secretary said that there would be conditions for the expansion of grammar schools or the creation of new grammar schools. We do not know the details, but it is hard to see how this would work.

The evidence shows that it is harder for a pupil on free school meals to gain access to a grammar school. Does this mean that there will be two test scores – one for disadvantaged pupils and the other for all pupils?

A step backwards

We have made tremendous improvements in our education system over the past 20 years or so. More than three-quarters of state secondary schools are rated outstanding or good by Ofsted, helping all their pupils to make progress, whatever their starting point. Challenges remain but these challenges will not be addressed by increasing selection.

What we need is sufficient funding and teacher supply, evidence-based best practice and collaborative working. Increasing selection is a distraction from the important priorities; those that will deliver continued, system-wide progress.

Surely, our job now is to work together to ensure the education system supports all young people to achieve, rather than looking to the past for solutions which are simply not the right way forward for our country in the 21st century.

Leora Cruddas is director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders. She tweets as @LeoraCruddas

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