So the grammar school debate seems to be back on the agenda. I have written about this many times before on this blog, and elsewhere, so any views expressed here should not be a surprise to anyone.
There appears to be a more co-ordinated campaign in some parts of the Conservative Party for the current presumption that all new secondary schools should not select by ability be dropped after the next election, in the event of a Conservative win. Indeed, Friday’s Times will carry a feature on it, including an excellent article by Jonathan Simons from the Conservative think tank Policy Exchange. Allowing more grammar schools would reverse the policy of successive governments since the 1970s, and it would also reverse the policy of the last, and perhaps best known, Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. I heard Mr Gove say on a number of occasions that he did not support those from his own back benches who thought that dividing children by supposed ability was any more helpful to improving England’s education challenges than accepting the equally deterministic narrative that social background was necessarily a limiting factor on achievement. Education should be, Michael Gove maintained, “transformative” (his word) for all.
So what is the issue with more grammar schools? Surely it is OK if parents want them – are we not supposed to be moving to a more consumer-led approach to education, giving communities what they want and freeing them from unnecessarily restrictive Whitehall-imposed regulation? What is the free school movement, if not that?
Well, while I am completely in favour of allowing local communities to determine what they want for themselves, I am also in favour of ensuring that government should ensure that the interests of the least powerful and advantaged in our society are protected. As Jonathan Simons convincingly demonstrates in today’s Times article, the least advantaged do not, despite claims to the contrary, send their children to grammar schools. The figures show that if you are a child on free school meals, a simple indicator of comparative disadvantage, the chances of you going to a grammar school are very slim indeed. David Willetts, now a Tory minister, said in 2007: “We must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids… there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it.” So in other words it is impossible to separate out the impact of ‘ability’ and social background when you measure a child’s performance at age 11. Talk of a ‘tutor proof 11+’ is quite simply nonsense.
Do grammar schools provide good education? Yes, absolutely they do, in the vast majority of cases. So doesn’t that simple fact indicate we should have more of them, so more children can go to them? No, it does not. Because as soon as you have more grammar schools, by definition and unavoidably, you have more secondary moderns – schools where there is a concentration of children who could not get into the grammar schools or whose backgrounds meant they never tried. Grammar school areas have more ‘problem’ schools than other areas, and therefore more children in ‘problem’ schools.
There is a simple answer. What defines grammar schools includes a formal academic education, good behaviour, an ethos of hard work, challenge and aspiration, a sense of history and identity, a smart uniform, competitive sport, inspiring music, debating, chess, Duke of Edinburgh, support for getting to the best universities, and so on. But make it available in every school, for all children, not just for what by definition will be a minority in a selective grammar school system.
Maybe you are saying as you read this: ‘but some children aren’t bright enough for this’. If that is what you think, consider the work of the American psychologist Carol Dweck. Her research on mindsets demonstrates that if you close down a child’s beliefs about learning either by telling them they are innately ‘less able’, you reduce their performance. The 11+ in other words becomes a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. PISA data supports this: internationally, selection at 10 or 11 has a negative impact on achievement. The best performing countries don’t do it.
Faced with all this, the only thing to do is abandon attempts to separate pupils out at age 11, and work on this principle that should motivate us as educators: all children are capable of high achievement, regardless of background. That is what our competitors in the Far East do, where the guiding principle is that hard work, practice, motivation and perseverance are the keys to success at school, not agonising over whether a child is ‘suitable’ for a grammar school or not. If we continue to obsess over this, we will never close the achievement gap and we will never excel in education in comparison with our competitors internationally.
I am completely in favour of more schools becoming more like the best grammar schools, but I am absolutely against having a more widespread strategy for keeping some children out of them. The advocates of more grammar schools should focus on better and more aspirational schools for all, nothing more, nothing less.