Neil Carmichael is Chairman of the Education Select Committee and is MP for Stroud.
As a Conservative MP representing a constituency in which two of the remaining 163 grammar schools in the country are based, and as someone who has also served as Chair of Governors of one of those schools, you would think that my natural inclination would be to wholeheartedly welcome the prospect of lifting the ban on grammars. However, as someone who has spent my whole time in Parliament studying and reflecting on the educational challenges this country faces, I share little of the enthusiasm of some of my colleagues.
I am sure that all of my colleagues on the Education Select Committee share the aspiration of the Prime Minister when she said that “we will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you”.
In September, the Government published its Green Paper, Schools that work for Everyone, in which it proposed allowing existing grammars to expand, permitting the establishment of new selective schools and allowing non-selective schools to convert to selection.
This morning the Education Select Committee is holding a special ‘evidence check’ hearing with the Department for Education, academics and policy experts to review the existing evidence for selective education to feed into the public consultation which closes in early December. This will be followed later in the day with a House of Commons debate, sponsored by Members from across the House on the role of Grammar and Faith Schools.
Grammar schools are popular with parents and good for the children that attend them, but that in itself does not mean they improve social mobility. Indeed, the Government’s Green Paper acknowledges this, noting that studies have made an association with poorer educational consequences for those pupils not attending selective schools where selection is allowed, and that only 2.5 per cent of pupils in selective school were eligible for free schools meals compared to 13.2 per cent for all state-funded schools.
Other evidence argues that attending a grammar school does not make less advantaged children more likely to be upwardly mobile – but it helps them move further if they are upwardly mobile.
If we are to make a success of our future in the world we must confront the causes of the productivity gap between the UK and our competitors, take action to improve numeracy and literacy in our workforce and improve social mobility for all our children.
Many of my Conservative colleagues, on all wings of the Party, have argued that if we are really want to address social mobility, and ensure that the next generation can have the opportunity to make a success of our future we would do well to look again at two key ‘Cinderella’ areas. Firstly nursery and early years provision – where the gaps in attainment between poor children and their peers are already clear at the age of four or five. Secondly, there is much more to be done in funding and expanding schools (the majority in our education system) which are providing more technical and vocational routes into the world of work, such as University Technical Colleges and the much-neglected FE Sector. Sir Michael Wilshaw (appointed by Michael Gove, lest we forget) has said grammars do nothing to improve social mobility, and share the concerns it will distract us from the debate about early years and a vocational route to success in life.
Many claims have been made in recent weeks about the potential of grammar schools to transform aspects of our education system. Select committees are—as a rule—more interested in evidence than assertion. However tempting the latter may be, it is by being guided by the former that sound public policy will be made. That is what I and my colleagues on the select committee will be doing today.