Changing government policy to allow more grammar schools could result in new GCSEs and other planned reforms going “horribly wrong”, according to a former senior Department for Education adviser.
Sam Freedman (pictured below), a key policy aide to Michael Gove when he was education secretary, has used a TES interview to warn that any switch to wider academic selection would leave his old department no time for anything else.
“It’s not straightforward. If you want to open up grammar schools you will probably have to change the law,” he said. “It will take up all of the DfE’s time because it will be a huge debate at a time when we have real problems that need to be sorted now.”
Mr Freedman, now an executive director at charity Teach First, said: “We are still at the beginning of the GCSE reform cycle and it’s a very big complex policy reform and if the eye is taken off that one that could go horribly wrong and cause a lot of problems.”
Last month, education secretary Justine Greening fuelled speculation on a return to selection. Asked about her position on allowing more grammar schools, she replied: “We need to be prepared to be open-minded.”
And just last week, schools minister Nick Gibb sidestepped a question about more pupils going through the 11-plus.
But Mr Freedman is clear that focusing time and effort on an age-old debate around selection would be mistake. Instead Ms Greening should prioritise carrying through the work of her predecessors, he argued.
The department’s focus should be on curriculum reform, teacher recruitment, its newly expanded remit looking after skills and universities, and providing more funding and coordinated school improvement support in “stagnated areas” of the country, according to Mr Freedman. “Grammar schools are just a distraction to that,” he said.
“There are lots of ad-hoc initiatives like the Blackpool Challenge and North East Schools Challenge cropping up as people try and replicate some of the collaborative work done under the London Challenge,” Mr Freedman added. “It feels there could be a lot more support for that kind of work.”
Mr Freedman believes Ms Greening should push forward with the “promising” idea in the education White Paper of giving support to “achieving excellence areas” – areas that have underperformance and insufficient capacity to drive improvement – to tackle social mobility.
“If we could build that up into a policy that meant investment and coordination around those areas within a comprehensive system that has a huge potential as a policy direction,” he told TES. “That’s the path the government are on; we would like them to continue to focus on that and not get distracted by this debate.”
‘Middle class will benefit’
Pro-grammar school campaigners see selection as a key way of improving social mobility. The grassroots activist group Conservative Voice was reported to have support from more than 100 MPs for a suggestion that the first 20 of a new wave of grammar schools should be built in socially deprived areas.
However, Mr Freedman believes that middle-class families would still “monopolise” these schools as they would bus their children in from more affluent areas.
And he is not the only senior Tory ministerial adviser to have spoken out against selective education. Jonathan Simons, a former head of education in 10 Downing Street’s Strategy Unit, wrote in a joint article for the Policy Exchange thinktank in 2014 that “grammar schools entrench social division, rather than solve it”.
But observers believe there is a possibility that the next education bill could be amended to make it possible for Ms Greening to change the admissions code in favour of selection.
Speaking at the same Teach First conference last week, Mr Simons said: “We don’t know what [the bill] is going to look like. So that does create a very rare opportunity for people to actually stick their two pence in and get their issues raised up the agenda.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “Our focus is on making sure the education system works for everyone and that every child has the best possible start in life.
The education secretary has been clear that the most important thing is what’s happening in the classroom and to recognise that children thrive in different learning environments.”
Q&A: Can we expect more grammar schools?
Why are grammar schools back on the agenda?
A recent decision to allow a grammar school in Kent to open an annex 10 miles from its site, and the arrival of new prime minister, have left many pro-selection campaigners sensing an opportunity.
More than 100 Tory MPs are set to campaign for new grammar schools in England. The grassroots activist group Conservative Voice will renew calls at the party’s conference this autumn for the 1998 law forbidding any new all-selective schools to be changed.
What are the arguments for opening new grammar schools?
Pro-grammar school campaigners say that increasing the number of selective schools would give more bright children from poorer backgrounds the opportunity to move up the social ladder.
They say parents should be given more choice, and they believe it is better to select school places based on ability rather than on where your family can afford to buy a home.
They also argue that grammar schools are more likely to secure good exam results than neighbouring comprehensive schools, and therefore increase pupils’ chances of successful futures.
What are the arguments against?
It may be better for those who get in, but the pupils attending non-selective schools nearby are less likely to gain as good academic qualifications and will not benefit from such a mix of abilities.
Opponents also point out that very few poor children actually go to grammar schools. A report from the Sutton Trust educational charity said that just 2.7 per cent of pupils at grammars were eligible for free school meals, compared with 16 per cent across all secondary schools.
New analysis this week found that 99 per cent of grammars had an “unusually low intake” of poor pupils (bit.ly/LowIntake).
Those stark figures have led to accusations that grammar schools mainly cater for middle-class families who can afford private tuition for the 11-plus exam.
How does the pro-grammar school lobby respond to that?
Campaigners have suggested creating the first 20 new schools in “socially deprived areas”.
But opponents fear that the catchment areas would still be wide, so middle-class families could commute from more affluent areas to ensure that their child had a grammar school education.
Is the campaign likely to be successful?
Education secretary Justine Greening said she is prepared to be “open-minded” about allowing new grammar schools in England. She told the BBC that she recognised it was an “important debate” that had to be considered in today’s landscape.
Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s joint chief of staff, has been described as absolutely “pro-grammar”.
Meanwhile, Ms May, who was educated in a grammar school, previously backed plans for a grammar school annex in her constituency of Maidenhead, Berkshire.
It is understood that Mr Timothy has talked of using the existing free-schools policy to allow parents to open new selective secondary schools – rather than repealing the existing law.