It is no secret that the new government is giving serious consideration to permitting grammar schools to expand. A return to the selective principle has been metaphorically verboten in English politics since the late 1960s, and literally illegal since the late 1990s. So why, then, would the new prime minister Theresa May be considering this?
One reason, with which I have growing sympathy, touches on how the political class engages with the majority of parents across the country. As the recent EU referendum result has shown us, beyond the bounds of the London tube network lies a whole world that has gone unrecognised and unrepresented for a political generation.
According to a recent ComRes survey, fully half the population of England supports the reintroduction of grammar schools, and only 10 per cent oppose it. Many will be shocked by that statistic (I know I was) since education policy discourse, on both the Left and the Right, does not even remotely reflect it.
Instead, both parties have fought for educational reforms – school autonomy, greater choice of provider, curriculum change – which I consider worthy, but which were never as popular with the hard-working families of provincial England as selection. While these parents are not on the breadline, they have neither the money nor, actually, the inclination to buy their children private education, yet the political class will not offer them the state schools that they want.
The revolution falls short
Both parties might object that instead of grammar schools, these parents have been provided with great non-selective schools. Recent reforms have focused on delivering schools with knowledge-rich curriculums and strong discipline: hallmarks of grammar school education. Certainly, it is true that exceptional individual schools and whole multi-academy trusts (MATs) now exist that deliver this ethos without the need for selection.
But this revolution has not gone far enough, nor fast enough, to satisfy the demand for traditional schooling in the country at large. The borough in which the Palace of Westminster stands has a total of eight “outstanding” secondary schools for a population of 226,000. The county of Hampshire, where I grew up, has a population of 1.32 million people and a mere 13 “outstanding” secondary schools.
The message that there are great non-selective schools is no use if those schools are all in London and you live in Basingstoke. When it’s your child stuck in the coasting comp with poor behaviour, it is cold comfort to be told that distant politicians think that this is the best system overall and that improvement will come eventually.
If school reformers accept the need for continuing improvement in England’s education system, the evident parental demand for grammar schools ought to necessitate consideration of their possible value, in which – for at least a moment – doubts about selection are put to one side.
The government certainly needs experienced educational partners if it is to realise its dream of an all-academy system, and there is not yet sufficient capacity among non-selective MATs. To be sure, not all grammar schools are currently achieving strongly enough given their advantages, but many of these schools have the experience and capacity to expand and to deliver high-quality education.
A shock to the system
Potentially of greater impact is the “system shock” that permission to expand grammar schools would bring. The introduction of academies and later free schools broke monopolies in the provision of education, but, perhaps as importantly, they also broke the complacent mindset of those providing schools who found they had new, innovative and challenging neighbours.
Just as the threat of forced academisation of failing schools, or the imminent arrival of a new free school, was a strong incentive to poor providers to improve their own schools, so the challenge of introducing selective schooling into an area should spur on those who have taken for granted the support of local parents. If those who deliver schools wish to keep their area “free” from selection, they had better ensure that their non-selective schools are delivering the education that local parents want and children need.
Undoubtedly, grammar school expansion raises serious questions: who gets into any given grammar school and what happens to those who do not can be genuinely problematic, and no government considering expansion could afford to ignore access and alternative provision. Equally, the government should not be in the business of undermining those successful non-selective providers it has helped to build.
If the government were to pursue this course, I’d suggest the following safeguards. To begin with, when creating new schools or allocating improvement partners for failing ones, neither selective nor non-selective providers should receive preferential treatment. The criteria should relate to capacity to deliver improved education for the affected children.
The expansion of grammar schools should not herald a return of “secondary moderns”. Poor curriculum provision, lack of access to qualifications and bad behaviour should be a thing of the past for all students in all schools.
The strong accountability systems that now exist in English education assist with this and new grammar schools should also have a role: any grammar school given permission to expand should be required to form a MAT with one or more local non-selective schools, and their continued running of the selective school should be conditional on the success of all schools within the MAT.
Tests for access to grammar schools should follow nationally agreed criteria and be overseen by the exams regulator Ofqual. As part of any settlement involving the expansion of grammar schools, the pupil premium should be reworked to favour not simply those children on free school meals, but the children of (crudely) the upper-working and lower-middle classes in order to incentivise all schools, including grammars, to avoid domination by the wealthy.
Permitting the expansion of selection is fraught with risks, politically and educationally. It is certainly no silver bullet. But nor was comprehensivisation or many other reforms pursued in the past 40 years. Given the strength of feeling, it seems to me that education reformers cannot ignore parental desires simply because it makes them feel uncomfortable. Wherever possible, sensible and democratic government should go with the grain of the people and not against it.
John David Blake is a history leading practitioner in a non-selective multi-academy trust and a writer on education. Find him on Twitter @johndavidblake