I am clear that the decision to reintroduce selection big-time into English schooling is a huge error. But this post does not debate the evidence or arguments about selection but looks at what the decision tells us in more general policy terms.
First, the Theresa May government is dysfunctional. Tony Blair, for whom I worked for five years, was criticised for centralized sofa government. But this decision shows that No 10 is even more dominant. The policy has all the hallmarks of being devised and written by someone who has just left his post heading up a lobby group – with all the skewed results that leads to. Frankly it feels like Theresa May’s chief of staff, Nick Timothy, is the de facto Secretary of State for Education. Justine Greening and the Department for Education have been completely railroaded in a way that even Blair never got near to. I also suspect that given the summer break the policy has not been through being tested in a full cabinet committee process. No wonder the May government is having such trouble devising a Brexit strategy if its policy-making procedures are in such disarray.
Second, the concept of a school-led education system appears to be as dead as the proverbial Monty Python parrot. What was the role of our best headteachers in shaping and devising this policy? They have been ignored and sidelined. The only way that we can now give meaning to a self-improving school-led system is if school leaders find their collective voice and say very clearly ‘Up with this we will not put’.
Third, the policy leaves the rest of education policy in confusion. Selection has been parachuted into the education arena with all the finesse of a clown blundering into the ring during a delicate a highly complicated circus routine. The best education systems ensure that the policies align and reinforce each other. The government’s strategy had been to encourage, incentivise and (where necessary) require schools to work together through teaching schools, multi-academy trusts, school direct groups and research networks. Selection – particularly in the secondary sector – will undo 25 years of effort since the Grant Maintained era in getting secondary schools to work together for the welfare and outcomes of all young people in their area and not just those in their own school. Comparing the performance of grammar and selective schools – as Theresa May did in her speech – was incredibly divisive.
It’s also not clear where we now stand with wanting to move all schools to being part of MATs – can the government fight on this front as well as take on the selection battle? What will happen to what was arguably the most progressive reform in the Education White paper – the introduction of Achieving Excellence Areas? They were targeted precisely at those communities and those schools that Mrs May said were her priorities.
Fourth, selection makes the fundamental error of giving in to the politics of distraction – i.e. they detract from other effective ways for education systems to become world-class. As the chair of the Education Select Committee, Neil Carmichael argued on Newsnight on Thursday evening (8th September) the real focus should be on improving the quality of teaching and learning in all classrooms in all schools. Professor John Hattie has written lucidly and compellingly on this issue:
The evidence shows that what’s most important is to focus on the classroom – that is, championing teacher expertise, and spreading it from classroom to classroom.
Hattie explains how getting fixated on school structures, selection and choice distracts from this agenda. It’s a lesson that politicians in England seem reluctant to learn.
This has been a depressing week for those of us committed to improving schools and education. I take some comfort from the fact Theresa May is going to find it hard to get her proposals enacted. But the school community needs to show leadership and halt the policy carnage. School leaders must be insistent that this will not do and say to the government:
We are not opposing your plans, Mrs May, out of political dogma but because we want to improve the life chances of all children – not just a few who are selected to go to a different type of school. Our ambition is bolder than yours: we want all schools to be good schools and we believe we can achieve this by schools working together to share knowledge and improve teaching and learning rather than competing against each other.