The debate on whether or not to end the ban on new grammar schools should end almost as soon as it starts. For the first question to hand is not: do they help social mobility? Or even: are they good for children in the areas in which they exist? It is, rather: who should take the decision?
In a system with many different types of school, and in which local demand can bring new ones into being, it is an anomaly to bar the creation of new grammars. Schools can select internally through setting and streaming. And they can select externally, too – all the more so courtesy of the last Labour Government, which brought in more specialist schools, based on the aptitude of pupils for sport, languages, science, and so on. As Damian Green has written on this site: “this gave rise to the slightly perverse situation whereby the state would offer a school which could stretch you to the limit if you were good at [these subjects]…but forbade by law a school stretching you to the limit if you were just generally good at school”.
It follows that if people in Chuffnell Poges or Sin City Central want new grammars, or other schools that select by academic aptitude or ability, they should be free to do so. Localism should prevail.
To say that they should have the freedom to do, however, is not necessarily to say that they should take it, or to answer those important questions about social mobility and children’s welfare – though since the evidence is not conclusive either way, these may not be answerable at all. Opponents of grammars dredge up studies purporting to prove that they were or are bad for both, but they don’t bite. They can’t, because they either refer back to a tripartite system that broke down the best part of 50 years ago, or look around at today’s system in which there is an artificial shortage of grammars. Research into the effects of a limited number of them don’t tell us much about what those of a larger number might be.
Nor are figures about free school meals conclusive. As Shadow Education Secretary, David Willetts deployed some in a selection-sceptic speech that made waves, angered some fellow Conservatives, and rocked David Cameron’s boat. He said that grammar schools take too few pupils receiving those free school meals. Their supporters replied that blame for that lies with primary schools that fail to stretch poorer pupils.
In any event, there is a danger in discussing social mobility of failing to grasp that it has two meanings, not one. It can mean absolute mobility (that’s to say, people doing better than, say, their parents did) or relative mobility (in other words, doing better than other people). One the one hand, that the post-war expansion of grammars took place at the same time as a wider expansion of absolute mobility looks like correllation, not causation. There was a new post-war prosperity which lifted most boats. On the other, the grammars gave some bright children from poorer backgrounds opportunities that they would otherwise not have had. It would be perverse to claim that they made no difference to relative mobility.
Local people who are pondering the merits of new grammars would do better to drill down into the detail of how they work today. For to support the principle of selection in general, or new grammars in particular, is not necessarily to support the eleven plus – still the main means of making that selective choice.
If providing more opportunities for poorer children is the lodestar, then the present system doesn’t seem to be steering by it. This is why the Sutton Trust has welcomed initiatives to ensure that pupils who gain the pupil premium are admitted to grammars even if their eleven plus scores are lower than those of some others. Then there is the matter of the age at which the test is taken. Even the most ardent supporters of grammars concede that eleven is an early age to be the norm. Graham Brady is one of selection’s most dedicated Parliamentary champions. So his backing on this site for “a process leading to selection at 14 based on the preferences of the child and the parents, in the light of recommendations from teachers” is worth noting.
All in all, there is a good case for Theresa May’s new Government for taking a leaf out of Dominic Raab’s Meritocrats Manifesto, and allowing new selective schools to be established first in deprived areas with poorly-performing schools – what ConservativeHome has called Meritocracy Schools. The catchments for these could be drawn wide, as Green had suggested, so that they can take pupils from a city or county.
This way of proceeding might be the best way of neutralising political opposition to new grammars. The Lords will kick up rough at the prospect. So will the opposition parties in the Commons. So, the Guardian tells us, may “many of the modernisers loyal to David Cameron who were consigned to the backbench by May”. Michael Gove’s reaction to plans for new grammars – which May clearly supports – will be watched with special interest. As Education Secretary, he was not opposed to these in principle, once telling their supporters that “my foot is hovering over the pedal; I’ll have to see what my co-driver, Nick Clegg, has to say”. But even a small Commons rebellion could sink proposals to lift the ban.
Those self-styled modernisers would be wrong to oppose new selective schools, especially if introduced as we suggest, but they have a wider point. Bright children who lack opportunites matter. Any Party which supports aspiration will always want to help them. But other pupils matter, too – those with special needs; those for whom the academic route doesn’t work, and perhaps above all the average pupil, if there is such a person, at the average underperforming school.
Academic selection is unlikely to help him. The tripartite system certainly failed to assist those for whom grammars weren’t suitable: the technical schools that Rab Butler envisaged never took off. And many selective schools folded because the system was unpopular with parents. As Henry Hill wrote recently on this site, Tories who want more now “must make certain that they care – and are seen to care – as much about the alternatives”. So: more grammars amidst diverse provision? Yes. But academies are a better means of ensuring an improved system as a whole.