After a relatively quiet period over the school holidays, the government has just announced a major new policy that threatens to radically change the fabric of the current education system. Although exact timings have not been specified, the prime minister has announced plans to give schools the right to select pupils on the basis of their ability, effectively giving the go ahead to expand the number of grammar schools in England. Theresa May passionately stated that the current system actively holds the best pupils back from reaching their full potential, putting forth the following argument in a recent speech:
‘For too long we have tolerated a system that contains an arbitrary rule preventing selective schools from being established – sacrificing children’s potential because of dogma and ideology. The truth is that we already have selection in our school system – and it’s selection by house price, selection by wealth. That is simply unfair.’
Can the education system cope?
Grammar schools are state secondaries that select their pupils based on academic ability through examinations taken by children at the age of 11. The government has justified this transition by claiming that they are trying to improve the quality of education available in England. This comes at a time when the education sector is already experiencing fundamental challenges around the recruitment and retention of teachers, increasing pressures with an anticipated rise in pupil numbers and not to mention the transition of control away from Local Authorities into the hand of institutions run through academy and free school status. Is the sector really in a position to be distracted by this new policy direction?
A government source told a major national newspaper that the reintroduction of grammar schools was about ‘social mobility’, further adding that ‘if you’re a really bright kid you should have the opportunity to excel as far as your talents take you.’
The proposal has received strong opposition from a wide variety of sources. Martin Trobe, Interim General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, gives a balanced overview by saying: ‘grammar schools do a good job for the young people they educate, but we do not believe that increasing selection is the right approach to improving social mobility. The evidence suggests that increasing selection would in fact widen educational gaps, further constraining the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. We are therefore opposed to the introduction of new selective schools.’
This view point was supported by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the outgoing Ofsted chief, who told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the policy would be a backward step and is worryingly ‘putting 20 years of progress in education policy at risk.’
Education secretary Justine Greening is clearly behind the policy and directly challenged Sir Michael’s criticism, suggesting: ‘this is not about going backwards, this is about a 21st century education system. Parents want choice for their children. There are some children that want and need to be academically stretched. This is not a return to secondary modern schools which, for a long period of time, did not even set an exam for children as they finished their education in them.’
History of grammar schools?
Under the plans, any state comprehensive or academy will be allowed to convert into a grammar school as long as they fulfil certain criteria. First introduced in 1944 and peaking in numbers during the 60’s when there were 1,200 in existence, there are currently slightly more than 160 grammar schools in England educating about 160,000 students. Overall, they are making up a small proportion of the 3,200 state-funded secondary schools according the Department for Education’s latest figures.
When they were first introduced, it didn’t take long for strong opposition to challenge the existence of grammar schools, arguing that they were reinforcing a division in class across communities. This was supported in a recent report by the Sutton Trust, showing that less than 3% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals – an important indicator of social deprivation – whereas the average proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals in selective areas is 18%. As a result they were gradually phased out, and in 1998 the Labour government officially banned any new selective schools from being created.
The new policy is likely to require an Act in Parliament and, judging by the vocal debate taking place across the national media, it won’t receive universal approval. Is the government’s new policy one that progresses the current education system or simply harks back to a bygone era? Let us have your thoughts below.