New grammar schools will not fix our education system
A major report in the 1960s, “Half our Future”, bemoaned that the English school system was failing to educate successfully at least 50 per cent of the population.
Last year, chillingly, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) drew concerned attention to what they dubbed the “forgotten third” of youngsters who leave our schooling system with little to show for their efforts and ill-prepared personally, socially, and economically for adult life.
Is the sum total of our life efforts, we asked ourselves, that we have reduced failures from a half to a third – that is one-sixth in 60 years?
Well no. Let’s celebrate the fact that the introduction of comprehensive schools, together with teachers’ improved skills and raised expectations of what children can achieve, have increased the percentage taking advantage of the sunny uplands of university education over the same period from about five per cent to almost 50 per cent.
New grammar schools... might save some school fees for well-off parents
But lately we’ve paid a price – squeezing time for those who respond to the performing and expressive arts and neglecting practical and vocational curriculum opportunities.
In interviews for our recent book, About Our Schools, former education secretary Lord Baker called our creaking examination system “unfit for purpose”. Another former education secretary Lord Blunkett called it “completely shot”. The system sustains this lopsided approach by ensuring, through norm-referenced exams (taken not when pupils are ready, but at a preordained and irrelevant time as a peer group) that we can identify the sheep from the goats.
It is against this background that leading national politicians occasionally and bizarrely decide they’d like to add to the rump of 163 grammar schools predominantly in Lincolnshire, Kent, Buckinghamshire, and scattered around the South East and South West and some of the big cities in the Midlands and the North. There is a rumour that this hoary chestnut is about to surface again at Westminster. As usual no doubt, the call will be for grammar schools, and the secondary moderns for the 75 to 80 per cent of rejected 11-year-olds will be glossed over. There will be an “assertion” that it will be a “good thing,” without any reference to the evidence suggesting that rejecting pupils at age 11 is academically unreliable and has always favoured already well-supported middle-class families over those in poverty and challenging circumstances. If we are not careful, we simply satisfy those parents who want their children kept with “people like them”.
Grammar schools don’t address the problem outlined earlier – still less the scandal of the number of children permanently excluded from our schools. This figure in 2018/19 was 7,894 whereas Scottish schools, with about a 10th of the population, excluded five. Not five per cent but five students. Put another way, for every child permanently excluded from Scottish schools, 1,500 suffer that fate in England. And the Justice Department knows the correlation between permanent exclusions and a term in prison.
You would have thought English schools ministers in pursuit of the oft-vaunted “world-class” standards would have nipped north of the border to find out what they do differently. But no. As Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove told us, “Exclusion is a necessary evil”: but why so necessary in England but so unnecessary in his native Scotland?
New grammar schools won’t solve these problems, but they might save some school fees for well-off parents who see the state coming to their rescue at a time of unparalleled financial difficulty, which makes buying advantage for your children through private independent schools an impractical plan.
An effective levelling-up policy would usher in long overdue educational reforms to meet the huge changes our present generation of children face now and in the future. These are set out convincingly and persuasively in the recent Times Education Commission. New grammar schools are, unsurprisingly, not an ingredient.
Tom Brighouse is a former chief education officer and Mick Waters is an ex-head teacher. They are the authors of "About Our Schools: Improving on previous best".
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.