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Could grammars be on the way back?

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Sam Freedman argues that this could be a real danger with pressure from UKIP pushing the conservatives into a reluctant new expansion

11+On one level it seems as though the decades long battle over grammar schools has been won. They feature in neither of the main parties’ manifestos; the myths propounded by their supporters have been thoroughly debunked by researchers on the left and the right. None of the education systems around the world that politicians  exhort us to emulate use selection at eleven (with the partial exception of Singapore).

And yet ‘grammars’ remain lurking in the shadows of this election. UKIP have made the introduction of new grammars one of their few distinctive domestic policies apart from reducing immigration; which has put pressure on the Conservatives who fear further leakage of their core vote to Farage and Co. This has been dramatised in a battle over a grammar school expansion in Kent. Grammars have always been allowed to expand – even since Labour legislated to prevent new ones opening in Blair’s first term – but they have always remained on the same site. Now Kent Council are trying to “expand” a girls’ grammar school in Tonbridge to a “satellite” site 10 miles away in Sevenoaks – which currently has no selective state schools.

Michael Gove rejected a version of this plan in 2013 but Kent have been much cannier this time. They’ve argued that this proposal meets all the rules for a legal expansion as the headteacher, staff  and curriculum will be shared across both sites. The new Secretary of State Nicky Morgan was caught in the unenviable position of either accepting the proposal and appearing to endorse new grammar schools or rejecting it, risking a Judicial Review and giving a political boost to UKIP. Wisely she decided to hold off making a decision until after the election. Whoever returns to her office after the election, though, will have a tricky decision waiting in their in-tray.

If the decision eventually goes Kent’s way then we can expect to see a raft of similar proposals put forward in the remaining selective local authorities. We may even see grammars outside of these areas, that have converted to academy status, putting forward expansion bids without the support of their local authorities. This would of course be unwelcome to those of us who oppose selective education at 11 but the bigger danger is that this pressure, combined with the UKIP threat, pushes the next leader of the Conservative party back towards wider support for ‘grammars’.

One of Michael Gove’s greatest successes as education secretary was that, through the academies and free school programme, he made comprehensive education acceptable to the right of the Conservative party. But his commitment to a fair education for all went deeper than many in his party. He explicitly rejected the paternalist belief advanced by some on the right and the left that academic education to GCSE standard isn’t for everyone (also known as the “the other people’s children” argument). One of his strongest beliefs was that all young people can benefit from the type of curriculum traditionally associated with grammar schools.

But this belief is still not universal amongst his colleagues. Two of the leading contenders to be the next leader of the Conservatives when Cameron steps down – Theresa May and Boris Johnson – have spoken out in favour of grammars – which is indicative of their believe in the Tory grassroots’ attachment to selective education. This is despite it directly contradicting the “choice” agenda that also appeals to Tory members (in a selective system parents don’t choose schools; schools choose pupils).

Perhaps more insidiously, throughout this Parliament, former education secretary Kenneth Baker, has argued for a form of selection at 14 with an academic stream complemented by specialist and generalist vocational routes. While Baker hasn’t yet managed to convince the Government or opposition to endorse this plan, both Tories and Labour have supported his 14-19 “University Technical Colleges” which are a key part of his proposals. There are now thirty UTCs open with another twenty on the way (though most have – revealingly – struggled to recruit 14 year olds).

Unfortunately Baker has formed something of an unholy alliance with those on the left who oppose the current Government’s focus on a core academic curriculum to 16 and would like to see vocational alternatives. Yet once one has accepted the principle of two different routes at 11 or 14 then logically it’s hard to oppose specialist institutions for these routes. Is there really much difference between segregating children within schools as opposed to between them? We know from PISA data that any shift towards curriculum segregation pre-16 increases social segregation in the education system. I would argue that holding the line on a broadly academic curriculum for all children to GCSE is essentiall if we are to avoid a return to selection.

Alongside a clear message about equality of education for all, those of us who oppose selection need to work together to boost parental confidence in the comprehensive system. I was struck, on a recent visit to Ontario, that the Government there had made parental confidence one of their main indicators of success. This is in contrast to successive governments in this country that have, perhaps, been too quick to emphasise failure in the state system. The debates about structural reform have played into this – with the Government too often ignoring the impressive achievements of schools that have stayed part of their local authority; while the  opponents of reform have been far too quick to jump on the occasional failures amongst academies and free schools, remaining quiet about the successes. This is not to say we should be complacent about the need to keep improving our system – but we should acknowledge that we are doing so from a strong base.

If opponents of selection from across the political spectrum can stand together and say every child deserves a high quality academic education and that the comprehensive system is perfectly capable of providing that opportunity for every child then, perhaps by the time of the next election, we’ll be talking about how to get rid of the remaining 163 grammars rather than whether we should open more.

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