Steven Courtney asks how can we make sense of an education policy that runs so clearly counter to the policy objectives of enhancing social justice set out by Theresa May in her first speech as Prime Minister ?
The problem of sense making
The question of whether to have grammar schools is not one where the evidence is ambiguous and may be cherry-picked to suit a particular position. For instance, Porter and Simon – writing for the think-tank Policy Exchange – have collated findings from a number of studies to demonstrate that, amongst other things, attainment gains for the more able are more than cancelled out by poorer results for the majority, who end up attending de facto secondary moderns.
So, if it is not located in the evidence base, where exactly is this policy located and what are its purposes?
I aim to explore briefly these questions not from the perspective of what is claimed but by examining this policy first from the perspective of what is partially said: that this policy is intelligible within a wider policy landscape which seeks to hierarchise provision. Second, I look at what is left unsaid: that this policy represents an important but under-explored element of the privatisation of schooling provision.
Hierarchy and mission
There has been a 30-year drive in England, not just to diversify schooling provision in accordance with market ideology, but to hierarchise that provision so that pupils with fixed and knowable potentials and abilities may be arranged into it efficiently for the benefit of the globalised economy.
For instance pupils will normally leave University Technical Colleges with higher-level qualifications in a broader range of subjects than those leaving studio schools, which have a similar curriculum and ‘mission’, and yet both are ostensibly ‘all-ability’.
That means that at least one of May’s claims underpinning the grammar-school policy is partially true: as my own 2015 mapping of schooling provision in England shows, selection even beyond the surviving 164 grammar schools never entirely disappeared, even in the comprehensive era.
However, this is not only about selection-by-wealth through house prices as May insists, but is deeply embedded through such mechanisms as pupil self-selection into hierarchised provision through recognising themselves and their (fixed) potential in the school’s branding.
The logic of marketised hierarchisation is that the ‘top-ability’ end of the ‘market’ is catered for through appropriate products. In the existing system, this is arguably lacking and so – if you accept the principle of hierarchy as a way of organising education provision – the introduction of new grammar schools makes good policy and conceptual sense.
Private desires and privatisation
Seen through another lens, this policy represents a continuation of the Conservative Party’s long-term commitment to the privatisation of education. For instance in a forthcoming paper, Gunter, Carrasco and Gutiérrez argue for an expanded notion of privatisation that goes beyond the ownership of goods and services in education. They insist that its location in ‘individual and family choice decisions about the type and level of education’ is just as important. Privatisation here means that issues are taken out of the public realm and are re-conceptualised as private issues. I think that a key role of the state in this framework is to facilitate these exchanges, and the grammar-school policy highlights this.
For instance, Theresa May justified the policy by saying that ‘… we know that grammar schools are hugely popular with parents. We know they are good for the pupils that attend them’ (full speech here). So, an issue becomes constructed as politically important because it’s important to parents as private consumers — although “parents” here is a sub-set consisting of those who (are likely to) vote Conservative. The state is fulfilling its objective in a privatised education system to make these private desires possible. Through this lens, it is of secondary importance whether the policy actually works, although that is where the focus has rightly been.
Both of these motivations – to hierarchise and to privatise– are susceptible to middle-class hijack, even where policy-makers genuinely mean to select more working-class pupils. Neither does the policy address valid concerns about what happens to children who are not selected and the schools they consequently attend.
And so, although the policy makes more sense when seen through these two lenses, its implementation will still increase educational and social segregation.