Conor Ryan reflects on the grammar schools debate
It was just three months before Tony Blair’s historic victory in 1997. Ben Chapman was fighting as the Labour candidate in the Wirral South by-election. And David Blunkett, the shadow education secretary, was visiting the Wirral County Grammar School. While he had a cup of tea with the headteacher, the late Eric Forth, then the schools minister, protested outside that Labour was no friend of grammars.
But, by then the opposition had decided to park the issue of grammar schools if it got into government. As Blunkett’s special adviser, I helped devise the 1998 legislation that is now reported daily as the ‘ban’ on new grammar schools. I briefed its details to the media ahead of that Wirral visit. But ironically, while it did indeed stop new academic selection, the legislation also made it hard to close existing grammars without parental consent. And that was as much its primary purpose. Neither Blair nor Blunkett wanted to be distracted from their wider plans to improve education by a huge debate about the remaining 166 grammar schools. (A few have since merged so there are now 163).
Nearly twenty years later, the last few weeks have shown us why. Theresa May’s speech at Downing Street last week may have had four key points to it – including, interestingly, a plan to require private schools to justify their charitable status by engaging more fully in state school partnerships – but most of the acres of coverage and debate have focused on ‘plans’ for ‘new grammar schools’.
But there are real dangers in making this the big focus of education policy, let alone the cornerstone of the Government’s drive for social mobility.
The first – and most obvious – reason is that the evidence is pretty thin that grammar schools improve social mobility. In the Green Paper, the Government quotes from a lengthy 2008 Durham University report published by the Sutton Trust. That report looked at GCSE results in existing grammar schools and found that those from poorer backgrounds who are highly able do marginally better than similar pupils in comprehensives.
To quote in full from the report: “We find that pupils eligible for [free school meals] appear to suffer marginally less educational disadvantage if they attend grammar schools. The difference is equivalent to about one-eighth of a GCSE grade; although this is statistically significant, it is certainly not large. It also seems possible that FSM pupils in grammar schools may typically be quite different from FSM pupils as a whole in ways that are not well measured, so we should be cautious about interpreting this as a strong endorsement of grammar schools.”[i]
At the same time, our more recent reports from 2013 showed that less than 3% of grammar school pupils come from an FSM background, 13% come from outside the state school system, largely independent preparatory schools. Perhaps more significantly, given the focus of the Prime Minister’s speech on those on modest incomes, the Anna Vignoles and IFS research[ii] showed a direct correlation between income and likelihood of grammar entry in each IDACI quintile.
In any case, at a political level, given the strength of opposition on the Conservative benches, there is no guarantee the 1998 legislation can be overturned in the Commons, let alone the Lords, where an alliance of crossbenchers, Labour and LibDems, as well as sceptical Tories could defeat it. Where Tony Blair could turn to the Conservatives when he faced a much larger rebellion over his 2006 education reforms, in the Commons, May can only count on the DUP, a single UKIP MP and hope that the SNP see this as a solely English matter.
Even if the government passes all its legislative hurdles, the likelihood is that the ‘dash’ for grammars, as the Sunday Times had it at the weekend, will be confined to existing grammar school areas. In reality, the number of grammar school pupils has steadily increased from 129,000 to 163,000 since 1997, or from 4.0 to 5.2% of all pupils. Adding new school buildings in those areas, without pretending they are satellite schools, and a few within their catchments in outer London, will hardly match the rhetoric of recent days. There is not much evidence of demand elsewhere.
Interestingly, within the hastily produced ‘Green Paper’ this week, there was one idea[iii] that could allow a practical way forward for highly able pupils – organising support hubs for the highly able within multi-academy trusts, composed of comprehensive schools. MATs already pool resources for A-level classes, and such a model could offer a way to boost support for able students without selection at 11 and with all the flexibility that a MAT offers.
Either way, it is important that the Government doesn’t lose sight of the needs of the highly able in comprehensives. Becky Allen’s Missing Talent research for the Trust is widely quoted by ministers, and shows that between the ages of 11 and 16, a third of working class boys who are in the top tenth at Key Stage 2 are outside the top quarter by the time they get to do their GCSEs. As the selection debate grips Westminster and Whitehall, no legislation is required to ensure they get a fair deal, just action in the name of social mobility.