Sir Graham Brady is MP for Altrincham and Sale West and Chairman of the 1922 Committee.
In every sense, I owe my career to selective education. It was getting into a grammar school in Altrincham, as the child of parents who grew up in Salford terraced houses, that put me on the path to a successful future, eventually earning a place at Durham University. It was Labour’s threat to abolish grammar schools in Trafford that inspired me to become a political campaigner. My first parliamentary speech, in 1997, was in opposition to Labour’s abolition of the assisted places scheme – as, indeed, was Theresa May’s. And of course it was to campaign in defence of grammar schools that I resigned from David Cameron’s shadow ministerial team in 2007.
Throughout that time, the most common accusation I have heard is that selection is just about helping the affluent: any new grammars will immediately be colonised by the pushy-elbowed middle classes.
But a new report on technical and vocational education by Toby Young for the Centre for Policy Studies – of which I am Deputy Chairman – shows clearly that selection is not about helping the few. It is about giving pupils of every kind a better chance of ending up in the school that is right for them.
Everyone, or at least everyone sensible, accepts that teaching should be tailored to suit the ability and aptitude of different pupils. That may involve streaming and setting within a school, or it may be done by different schools specialising in different types of education – and parents should be free to choose the school that best suits their child’s interests and talents.
There are plenty of pupils who have a passion and an aptitude for technical and vocational education, and would thrive in an environment tailored to letting them explore their talents – while still doing the core academic curriculum.
Unfortunately, as Toby sets out in his report, Technically Gifted, the University Technical Colleges and studio schools set up for the benefit of these pupils have not done as well as they should. Why? Because instead of being able to select students who actually want to be there, they have been used as dumping grounds by nearby comprehensives, who resist losing bright kids with a technical aptitude but are happy to see the back of those who are dragging them down in the Ofsted ratings, whether due to behavioural problems or a lack of academic aptitude.
Toby’s solution is to cut the Gordian knot linking technical and vocational education to academic failure by enabling these schools to select. He points out that two of the very best schools in England – the BRIT school in London and Birmingham Ormiston Academy – are selective technical schools of exactly the type he proposes. These schools managed to survive previous waves of educational reform and emerge as successful flagship institutions, both of which are socially inclusive. He also cites other examples from overseas of selective technical and vocational schools that have established themselves as a valuable and highly valued alternative to mainstream schools.
None of this should be a surprise. Those of us who defend selective education are often told that we are living in the past. Yet, in fact it is the opponents of selection who are harking back to the past, to the days when it was secondary moderns for the many and grammars for the few – and who want to preserve that divide today.
The defining feature of today’s education system, by contrast – and a defining achievement of this Conservative Government – is the expansion of provision to suit all needs. From the excellent high schools of my Trafford constituency, to the free schools and academies of all stripes, to the growing technical and vocational sector.
Yet still, absurdly, the core of the education system still operates (at least in most parts of the country) under the Henry Ford approach to parental choice – you can have any kind of school you like, as long as it is comprehensive.
This despite the mountains of evidence that it is selective and partly-selective areas that continue to dominate the league tables – not just the grammar schools in those areas, but the local eco-system of thriving schools that have grown up around them. Because the approach provides a better fit between pupils’ aptitudes and abilities and the schools they are taught in.
By tailoring their teaching to children’s particular needs, these areas frequently outperform comprehensive areas with similar demographic profiles. And we also know, from the Government’s own figures, that selective education is better for children of every ethnic group.
I have never wanted to tell people what schools should be available to them. But if we believe in opportunity and social mobility – and if we want to create a pathway through technical and vocational education, and on into highly specialised roles in the workforce, that is genuinely attractive to parents and children – then selective education must be part of the solution.
I have previously argued that new grammar schools should be targeted not at the middle classes, but at the most deprived communities – putting beacons of excellence within reach of, for example, the white working-class boys who have the lowest GCSE grades in the country.
The same applies to Young’s selective technical and vocational schools. At the moment, because they cannot choose their pupils, these schools are forced to take those that other schools want to move on – pupils who are not at all suited to the occupational specialisms that these schools teach, and who in some cases ruin the experience of those who are.
Wouldn’t it be better, as Young argues, if these schools were able to select those students with a particular aptitude for their specialisms? This should be the starting point in the Government’s efforts to revitalise technical and vocational education – a journey that leads to T-levels (which include a mandatory work placement), a place at an Institute of Technology, before entering a skilled occupation.
The choice, in other words, is not between grammars and comprehensives. It is between a flourishing ecosystem of schools, both selective and not, which do the best possible job of matching pupils and education – and a one-size-fits-all model which is increasingly out of step with the modern world.