New grammar schools can level up the country
Where grammar schools remain, most people want to keep them, but where they don’t already exist, you aren’t allowed to have one.
The ballot arrangements introduced by the government of Tony Blair may have been intended to see off academic selection (or, cynics might say, to protect it) but only one ballot was ever triggered – more than 20 years ago – when Ripon Grammar School survived with two-thirds of parents supporting it. Nowhere else was the threshold ever passed for a petition to succeed in securing a vote.
Labour’s statutory ban on any new academically selective schools has a particularly perverse effect in areas where the education system remains wholly selective. In areas such as Kent, Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire, rising population or the building of a new town can mean that the grammar schools aren’t always in the same places as the children. This led a few years ago to the Weald of Kent grammar school for girls jumping through endless hoops to establish an “annexe” in Sevenoaks to save local girls a long bus journey to school. The boys are still less fortunate. Where annexes aren’t possible children can simply find themselves excluded from the opportunities that exist elsewhere in the county. If grammar school places don’t keep up with population growth, it’s also inevitable that the schools become more and more highly selective.
In Trafford we kept the excellent grammar schools and set about improving the high schools as well
Fifteen years ago when the Conservative Party had a “moment of madness” over education policy, and I resigned from the front bench in order to defend grammar schools, it emerged that colleagues in Kent and Buckinghamshire had already been promised by David Cameron that they would be allowed new grammars to maintain the level of selection in their localities.
Over the years I’ve debated the benefits of academic selection countless times but, more often than not, I have found myself comparing a modern selective system such as that in my borough of Trafford with historical descriptions of life in the ‘60s or ‘70s. When most places saw good grammar schools and poor secondary moderns, they responded by scrapping the bit of the system that worked. In Trafford we kept the excellent grammar schools and set about improving the high schools as well.
Selective and partially selective areas dominate the league tables for GCSE and A-level performance but they are also better than comprehensive areas on some more surprising metrics too. Sutton Trust research found that the 100 most socially exclusive state schools in England were all comprehensives: selection by house price, rather than by a transparent and meritocratic admission process. Sutton also found Trafford to be the only local authority area in the North or Midlands to make the top 20 for entry to Russell Group universities. How’s that for “levelling up” the North? Meanwhile, the Education Policy Institute a few years back published its figures for the “attainment gap” by constituency. Chesham and Amersham was first and Altrincham and Sale West was second. Far from failing children from less affluent backgrounds, here we see modern selective areas delivering the best outcomes for everyone. Similarly, Northern Ireland’s selective system scores highly on public examinations but also has very low numbers coming out of school with no qualifications at all.
So, yes, I can evangelise for the kind of school that gave me a great start in life. I can also show that grammar schools can work as part of a diverse mix of schools to ensure that everyone can have the kind of schooling that best suits their style and pace of learning. I am not, however, suggesting a wholesale reorganisation of English secondary schools. The Schools Bill, currently before Parliament, should be amended to remove a senseless statutory ban on new selective schools. New grammar schools should be allowed where communities want them.
Sir Graham Brady is the Conservative MP for Altrincham and Sale West.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.