This week the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published its report comparing education systems worldwide and its Head of Education questioned the evidence for selection as a way of improving schools. Those who attended grammar schools such as Theresa May, argues Helen Gunter, make claims disconnected from research evidence and based on their own opinions, without due regard to the range of experiences and outcomes – such as her own.
There are only 163 grammar schools in England and 69 in Northern Ireland. Yet while they account for only a tiny minority of state provision they are in danger of causing educational indigestion by repeatedly controlling education policy.
We actually thought we had cured this acidic policy, particularly since new grammars were banned in 1998 and a wealth of research from the 1950s onwards makes the injustices very clear. As former University minister Lord David Willetts recently said, the best performing school systems in the world don’t put their efforts into trying to pick which kids they educate – they put their efforts into raising standards for all.
Stories about other experiences do challenge the Theresa May view of the advantages brought by Grammar Schools. Alan Johnson has spoken about his disconnect from school, and John O’Farrell gives an account of the absurdity of choice. At this point I must register an interest – in 1969 I failed my 11+ and ended up in a secondary modern. I was actually going to be a hairdresser (so if anyone wants a ‘wash and set’ then let me know!). But what actually happened to me? How did I turn things around? Well, for starters I stopped being an academic slow learner and caught up (I could not read until I was nine).
Just as significantly, the school went comprehensive leading to new investment in the curriculum, teachers and the school itself. This meant that my generation gained access to an academic education with a new sixth form. The rest is history.
In terms of the present debate there are some really important issues that need to be considered. Firstly, segregation is already a key feature of the education system. We segregate on the basis of income and wealth (fee paying schools), biology (boys and girls), faith (various religious schools), and various forms of ability such as ‘intelligence’ and ‘aptitude’ (such as via specialist sport or business schools). We also have schools and colleges for children with particular disabilities.
However we are gradually moving away from such segregation. We have the ‘common’ or ‘comprehensive’ school for all primary schools. We have the trend towards co-education of boys and girls. We have the phasing out of the 11+. And we have the integration of children with disabilities into ‘mainstream’ schools.
Yet the shift towards complex segregation has been enabled through the endurance of the fee-paying private independent school (7% of schools) and the major influence this has on the rest of the system, particularly in relation to the life chances of those who attend such schools and the use of the ‘independent’ model as the way to restructure the state system – typified by the incorporation of private interests into the setting up and running of schools via the academy programme.
Given that there are now between 70 and 90 different types of schools, the restoration of grammar schools in a marketised system based on competition has logic. However there is at least one huge contradiction. The change imperative for the diversification of schools has been underpinned by the notion of parental choice. However, there is no parental choice with grammar schools. The schools choose children who fit the remit of the school, and so the main choice for parents is how they play the examination game in order for their children to gain entry. This boosts the private education providers of fee-paying prep schools, and of the 11+ preparation tutor companies.
So privatisation is a key feature of the education system. The issue here is not so much how private companies and individuals are taking ownership of public assets and services, but how education is becoming a private matter for individuals and families. So even though all the research evidence demonstrates the social injustices of academic selection, and how social mobility is not enabled by selection, it is possible for a person to impose their beliefs on the rest of us.
It is the private within privatisation that we need to take note of here -how private views are being used to direct millions into private advancement at the expense of other people’s children.
Didn’t we leave such forms of elitist tyranny in the 19th Century? The restoration of grammar schools was not in the Conservative Party manifesto in 2015 (however it was in the UKIP manifesto), and it cannot be justified as an emergency solution to a problem that needs immediate action.
As such, it seems that we are living at a time when we have the legacy of ‘Downton Abbey’ politics whereby elites determine what is valid and we have to accept it and be grateful for it, even though there is evidence of the damage that will be done. This is also a time of ‘knowledgeable ignorance’ where authentic expertise from research is viewed as irritating and increasingly vilified in favour of the private beliefs and opinions of individuals and families who determine the life chances of other people’s children who are not yet born. Another interesting question is precisely why Theresa May is regurgitating this right now. Is it because she needs a distraction from Brexit?
So what do we do? We could ask if Theresa May has read the House of Commons briefing on grammar schools? It doesn’t seem that she has. Or we can ask some very pertinent (or impertinent) questions, regarding how May will guarantee that a system based on competition and selection will support all children, or how buying advantage through private schools and tutors will not give advantage to certain families. These along with other issues need to be included in how we respond to the consultation document.
We can also ask some questions that can shift the focus to change based on inclusive values and evidence. For instance, why are we not investing in children’s opportunities to learn from birth to five years of age? Why are we not developing the ‘common school’ from five to 18 years of age where we have diversity of provision within the school? Why are we not examining the changing economic, social and cultural structures, and enabling the workforce to be developed in ways that are aspirational for all?