Since 2010, various education secretaries have told us that we should be using evidence to raise the standards of teaching in our schools. The evidence showed that synthetic phonics was effective, and so the phonics check was born. And sure enough, the introduction of a test proved that schools are very good at improving the numbers of children who pass tests.
Evidence showed that a couple of academies had done all right, and so the academies programme was rolled out. And sure enough, the introduction of different types of academy proved that these schools do pretty much the same as any other type of school but provide a great way of the government looking like it’s doing something.
However, those days are gone. Any attempt to use so-called “evidence” to support policy is a thing of the past. As Michael Gove pointed out to us, people are tired of experts, with all their knowledge and facts. What people want is nostalgia. Cue the roll-out of a 1940s education model once again.
But does it go far enough? The arguments for grammar schools seem to revolve around improving the life chances of a small selection of poorer pupils by putting them in with a small selection of richer pupils. Yet, for some reason, commentators seem to be obsessed with doing so at the age of 11. I say, why wait?
True, in the 1940s, 11 was a sensible age to divide children up. It fitted with the buildings we had available, it was a fairly easy age to test at, and there were plenty of manual jobs to fill. But we don’t have those restrictions these days. We have data at our fingertips well before 11.
Why not separate at 7? After all, our whole education system is predicated on the idea that you can predict children’s outcomes at 16 on their results at 11, and their results at 11 on their tests at age 7. So why not have grammar junior schools? We surely already know by the age of 7 which of our poor children deserve a good education and which are just wasting our valuable resources.
Any attempt to use so-called 'evidence' to support policy is a thing of the past. Cue the roll-out of a 1940s education model once again.
But then…why stop there? It’s fair to say that last year’s Reception baseline test wasn’t 100 per cent successful at working out pupils’ potential, but then we know that the 11-plus doesn’t really do so either, so why let that be a barrier? I’m sure we could come up with a test for preschoolers to decide which route would be best for them. Some – at the age of 5 – are clearly suited to an excellent academic education, while we must surely be able to tell which would be better off in a sink school taught by those underqualified for the new grammars.
One step ahead
Already, I can picture some readers who are up in arms. It’s not fair, they’ll say. Children’s attainment at age 5 is so heavily affected by their upbringing before that. Their experiences, their opportunities, their vocabulary: it’s all massively related to the ability and education of their parents. But don’t worry – I’m one step ahead of you.
If we can predict children’s potential at age 11 through a couple of tests, I’m sure we could do so just as easily by testing their parents. And now we have a monetary saving, too, because the work is already done. Most five-year-olds’ parents are themselves a product of the education system. We need only look at their GCSE grades to estimate the potential of their offspring. So abandon the idea of the 11-plus. We can go straight ahead and create grammar primary schools everywhere.
Now we’ve solved that problem, perhaps we can get back to the teacher recruitment crisis, fair funding issues, assessment chaos and workload challenges. Let’s hope they’re all solved as easily.
Michael Tidd is deputy head at Edgewood Primary School in Nottinghamshire. He tweets @MichaelT1979