Despite yesterday's announcement that free-school funding will be made available to fund the extension of selection across the country, it’s safe to say that the prime minister’s first venture into education policy has not gone down well – teachers, heads and educationists have lined up to condemn it.
Even her appointee as education secretary, Justine Greening, seems less than enthusiastic about the idea, preferring to prioritise more important matters in her announcements.
So why would a few school leaders now choose to throw their weight behind the policy by suggesting grammar schools for disadvantaged young people? (see TES' “Academy chains’ plan for ‘pupil premium grammars’”, 3 March 2017)
There are several possible answers to this question, but the most likely is that, at a time of restricted school funding, some heads and academy trust CEOs have a Pavlovian reaction to the sound of educational cash registers, seeing the chance to grab a share of the £72 million funding for the government’s new "opportunity areas" – or the £500 million announced yesterday.
Encouraged by the Grammar Schools' Association – hardly an unbiased party in this policy field – and wishing to spare the prime minister’s embarrassment, Ms Greening may decide to approve a few grammar schools in the opportunity areas, so that she can tick the selection policy box and get on with the development of policies that will be of greater benefit to more children.
There is also the possibility that some heads believe that, by getting the government out of a hole on its selection policy, they will be favoured by ministers in other ways that may be of benefit to their schools or themselves. They paint the notion of grammar schools in opportunity areas as a shiny new radical idea, when it is nothing of the sort. The Model T Ford of education – good in its day perhaps, but woefully unfit for the needs of the modern era – does not become a Lamborghini because of access to a bit of extra government funding.
As well as educational reasons against introducing selection in the opportunity areas, there are practical considerations, too. As Jonathan Simons pointed out in TES on 3 March (see story above), it would be very difficult for schools exclusively for bright disadvantaged children to be large enough to be educationally and economically viable without broadening their catchment well beyond the geographical boundaries of the opportunity area or going so far down the ability range that it ceases to be a grammar school except in name.
Nor is the idea of a school solely for disadvantaged students an attractive idea.
'Creating an underclass'
Whatever comes of the Brexit negotiations, the economic and social needs of crowded 21st-century Britain require a population that grows up together, understands each other, maximises the opportunities for everyone regardless of their background and does not create an underclass of people doubly disadvantaged by their family circumstances and their failure to get into a selective school.
The big challenge for this generation of teachers is to use the funding from the pupil premium to raise the attainment of disadvantaged children of all abilities and close the gap with their more fortunate peers. One of the best features of the pupil premium policy has been the way in which it has presented a challenge to every school in the country to improve the performance of disadvantaged learners. Even schools in the leafiest of areas have not been immune from accountability for the impact they have made with the pupil premium. Every school has had to give serious thought to how they can support their disadvantaged students to do better.
Creating a selective school for bright pupil premium children will reduce the strength of the focus on other schools doing well with these pupils, which can only harm the interests of disadvantaged students as a whole.
The Sutton Trust reported in 2015 that 15 per cent of highly able pupils who scored in the top 10 per cent nationally at age 11 failed to achieve in the top 25 per cent five years later at GCSE (See “Missing talent”). Boys, and particularly pupil premium eligible boys, are the most likely to be in this missing talent group
The Sutton Trust report also said that highly able pupil premium pupils achieved half a grade less than other highly able pupils, on average, and were less likely to be taking GCSEs in history, geography, triple sciences or a language.
So there is much to be done, especially by secondary schools, to raise the aspirations, expectations and attainment of bright disadvantaged students. It is a challenge on which secondary schools must raise their game. That means disseminating more good practice for schools, as the Education Endowment Foundation is doing, and it means secondary school leaders and teachers seeking out and emulating the best practice elsewhere. It certainly does not mean putting a few of these children into a well-funded school in an opportunity area and ignoring the needs of the rest.
John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. His book, The School Leadership Journey, was published in November 2016. He tweets as @johndunford
For more TES columns by John, visit his back catalogue