The arguments against grammar schools are clear and overwhelming:
- Selection at 11 presumes intelligence is given and fixed rather than developed and developing. Brain and social development are just about to kick off as young people enter the teenage years and so making a decision at age 11 about the form of schooling for a child is perverse and flawed.
- Selection at 11 tells the majority of students that they are not in the top echelon and fosters lower self-esteem and can lower both their own and their teachers’ expectations of what they can achieve.
- Grammar schools have a poor record on social mobility in terms of meeting the needs of pupils on free school meals (FSM) – just a very low percentage (2.4%) of grammar school pupils are FSM. Poorer children are less likely to go to grammar schools than rich peers with the same primary test results. Even introducing quotas for FSM pupils is unlikely to make a material difference: they would only benefit a very small number of pupils.
- The overall performance of non-grammar school students educated in a selective system is negative rather than positive, when compared with those educated in a comprehensive system.
- Losing the most able students and staff to grammar schools is likely to have an impact on the balance and cohesion of other schools and their ability to recruit staff.
- The government has yet to show it can produce a ‘tutor-proof’ test.
- Education systems that perform best are those that tend not to stratify and stream but prioritise – until at least the age of 16 – all students attaining the required standards while also creating opportunities for the most advanced students to undertake extension work and activities.
- Grammar schools are a misdirected strategy because the historic problem of English education is not with top performers but with the long tail of under-achievement – relative to student cohorts in other countries.
Despite these arguments some multi-academy trusts (MATs) will come (or feel) under pressure from government ministers to apply to open a grammar school. In some cases, MAT Board members are preempting any approach from the DfE and toying with engaging with the grammar school agenda.
MATs should think very carefully before they clamber aboard this particular runaway train. Here are five questions they should ask themselves:
- How would such a move would fit a MAT’s founding mission and values. Organisations dilute or undermine their ethos and moral purpose at their peril. Some MATs may worry about how their ‘brand’ will be perceived if they do not have a grammar school in their stable of schools. But even if they were they to open a grammar school the vast majority of parents and students are still going to be served by non-selective schools. Is the MAT on the side of the many or the few?
- How will opening a grammar school further a MAT’s core business and objective of improving outcomes for all pupils? There must be a risk that the agenda becomes a diversion and distraction from improving the rates of progress and performance of pupils across the MAT. This was an issue flagged up by Neil Carmichael MP, the Conservative chairman of the Education Select Committee. It’s a concern that reflects the thinking of people like Professor John Hattie who has warned about structural solutions acting as ‘the politics of distraction’ leading educators away from the core business of improving the quality of teaching and learning.
- What will be the impact on other schools? Is there a risk that it will sow division amongst headteachers and teachers of schools within the MAT? How will the MAT’s reputation within the wider school community, in the localities where they apply to establish a grammar school, be perceived? What will be the overall impact on pupil place planning? Will it make it easier or harder to collaborate and work with other schools?
- What are the financial implications of opening a grammar school? It would appear that there will be some extra capital for new grammar schools but the initiative is unlikely to yield significant extra revenue funding.
- How sustainable is the policy? It is still not certain whether and in what form Parliament will legislate on this issue. Even if the proposals are enacted exactly as the government proposes (not the most likely scenario), and even allowing for another Conservative government being elected in 2020, the policy is politically vulnerable in the medium term given the lack of evidence for its provenance. Indeed a Conservative government led by a different Prime Minister might well take a different view of on the issue.
MATs should have confidence in what they are already doing. They are already in the front line of fighting to improve social mobility – they don’t need lectures from the Prime Minster or her adviser on this. However, what MATs as a group might do is call the government’s bluff. If Theresa May is really concerned about extending social mobility then rather than just authorising a costly unproven programme that will benefit relative few young people, she should be open to supporting something altogether more ambitious.
MATs as a class should get together with the Education Endowment Foundation and commit to an action research programme that is evaluated in a rigorous way. The programme would test and implement strategies that support the progress of all students with high potential – and particularly those from poorer backgrounds. Such an approach would build on the evidence of what was most effective in the earlier Gifted and Talented programmes and on learning from other parts of the world. The initiative should involve universities and businesses that value high quality skills and knowledge. However, the programme would particularly target how to empower students and teachers to improve school strategies and classroom practice for those making the fastest progress.
It’s time for MATs as a sector to exercise the moral leadership that is at the heart of what they are trying to do. They should ignore the siren calls of selection. Instead of being seduced by grammar schools MATs together should embrace a new commitment to realising student potential. They should follow though and do this even if the government dismisses and disparages their efforts. MATs should do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do.