If a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity. A little less than 12 months ago, the education establishment was vigorously debating the prospect of a re-elected Conservative government lifting the 20-year-old ban on grammar school expansion and reintroducing them across the country.
As we all know, that plan melted away along with the government’s majority. Opponents who had vociferously argued that selection at 11 tended to penalise disadvantaged students breathed a sigh of relief. I’d imagine grammar schools weren’t too displeased to drop out of the limelight either. Few schools like to be front and centre of contentious political campaigns – it detracts from the important job of educating children.
Even if new secretary of state Damian Hinds revives the government’s grammar school plans, which seems unlikely given the parliamentary arithmetic, very little will change in the short to medium term. Yet the issues raised in the debate haven’t gone away. Indeed, as schools minister Nick Gibb said in a response to the Commons Education Select Committee at the end of last year, the government still expects selective schools to improve admissions for disadvantaged pupils.
The fact remains that only 2.6 per cent of grammar students are on free school meals – well below the national average. As research has consistently found, these children find it far harder to get into grammars than their better-off peers. Even when children have the same attainment at 11, pupils in the poorest quintile have only a 25 per cent chance of getting into grammar schools, compared with a 70 per cent chance for those from the least deprived quintile. The political debate may have moved on, but surely we still have a duty to tackle this educational imbalance?
Grammar schools – which my organisation develops and administers 11-plus admissions tests for – have come to the same conclusion. Several have quotas for those on free school meals and some give them priority if they are oversubscribed. These moves are welcome, but they only come into play once a child has passed the admissions test. They don’t help them to access or pass the 11-plus in the first place.
'Early years is crucial to close the gap'
What children from more deprived backgrounds need is targeted support and encouragement much earlier. Ideally, disadvantaged students need to receive an excellent education before age 7 if the attainment gap isn’t to become entrenched; 11 is too late. A renewed emphasis on investing in the quality of early years and primary education is therefore essential, as is the early identification of pupils with the potential to benefit most from a grammar school education.
Grammar schools have always provided outreach for local primary schools. Now some are fine-tuning that outreach for pupils who need it most. Partly this is about providing role models – sending student ambassadors into schools that have traditionally sent few or no pupils to grammars, for instance, or making open days as inclusive as possible. It can also involve teachers from grammar schools working more closely with their counterparts in primary and providing support in English, maths and science.
But it’s also about equipping teachers, parents and students with the requisite information to tackle the 11-plus. This could mean, for example, holding practice tests to provide all children with experience of the test format and the setting (their seat, room and invigilators) in order to put them more at ease. Research conducted into other tests and exams has shown that a single practice test before an exam can be effective.
Another move has been to make familiarisation materials freely available for children and their parents, as the government specifically advocated in its response to the select committee report. These acquaint pupils with the kinds of questions they will experience in the 11-plus and the answering format, which they may not have encountered in their primary schools. They help pupils to prepare, and they help parents to help them, too.
Will these measures entirely compensate for the obstacles disadvantaged children generally face in the years leading up to the 11-plus, as well as in the 11-plus itself? No, they won’t, and doubtless more needs to be done. Nor will they quell the objections of those who reject the whole concept of grammar schools.
Yet such strategies can help to level the playing field gradually. As the status quo looks likely to continue for several years yet, hasn’t society a duty to make grammar school education as accessible as possible to those – from all backgrounds – who are best placed to benefit?
Greg Watson is chief executive of GL Assessment. GL Assessment develops and administers 11-plus admissions tests, which are used by grammar schools and county councils across England