Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and MP for Stratford On Avon.
My constituency of Stratford on Avon contains three of the five grammar schools that Warwickshire County Council has retained. This means that I know very well the outstanding education they provide, the opportunities on offer for children from all backgrounds and the impressive outcomes that are delivered.
However, I also know that this modern system of grammar schools is not a binary system of the have and the have nots; of success and failure. Instead, our system is one of success through multiple routes, whether you go to Alcester Grammar or Alcester Academy. And that is what this government is committed to delivering: a good school place for everyone, whether it is a maintained school, academy, free school or grammar.
Education is the key to our success as our country, and our success as society. Everyone has to be given the opportunity to shine and achieve, and there must be more good school places provided if we are to provide every child with the best possible start in life, and the chance to make the most of their talents.
Whether you support the reinforcement of selection into our education system or not, everyone wants the best possible outcomes from each one of our children. It is my view that part of this process is ensuring that different children are able to find and access the best route for them. I have always supported the efforts of the previous Government to increase the number of educational routes with Academies and Free Schools, and I firmly believe the new Government is on the right track to add another route, and increase the role of selection into our state education system.
Too many critics like to claim that this is an effort to drag our country back to the 1960s – that there will be a recreated system of grammars and secondary moderns. But this is a wilfully misleading and scaremongering description of the reality. This proposal is not about destroying our current system, but adding to it and ultimately enhancing it. As the Prime Minister said at PMQs last week, this proposal about ‘levelling up, not levelling down.’
Allowing existing selective schools to expand and create new sites, or allowing non-selective schools to become selective in some circumstances only provides new potential routes to success for children rather than taking anything away. Grammars will be adding to a diverse state education system far removed from the binary system of the past, and offering a variety of opportunities that would have been unmatched by any school in the 1950s or 60s. All of this is provided by a wide selection of schools including academies, free schools and specialist music, technology and sport schools.
Indeed, the addition of more selective schools will solve some of the problems we currently face. There are many brilliant state schools in this country, and there are some that are so good that parents are willing to make huge sacrifices to afford homes in their catchment area. This drives up house prices, and makes it a struggle for those without these means, no matter how much they save or what sacrifices they make to break into the area. This unfortunate selection by house price is a result of the natural urge of parents to get the best possible school for their kids, but it excludes those who struggle to make ends meet.
Even the traditional argument that those who go to selective schools are less likely to be on free school meals than those at comprehensive schools in a similar area will be undermined by the requirement for new or expanding grammars to take a fair proportion of children from lower income households.
And nor does the introduction of selection involve the construction of an impassable wall between schools, or segregation, as some over-excited members of the opposition have described it. The provision of opportunities to join the schools at 14 and 16 rather than largely at 11 means that there is no permanent exclusion, late developers can be included, and no one is left on a route that is inappropriate for them.
There also appears to be less debate amongst the public on this issue than within the political world. In August YouGov found that 59 per cent support the lifting of the ban on creating new grammar schools, and just 24 per cent opposed. A subsequent poll by BMG showed that 60 per cent of voters believe that ‘grammars enable children from less well-off backgrounds to achieve greater academic success.’ A Sky Data poll last week showed 60 per cent support for lifting the ban. Very few people advocate the removal of remaining grammar schools, even if they are uncertain about opening new ones – recognising the success of existing schools. It is my view that these successes need to be more widely shared..
It has been unpleasant to see politicians and some media commentators impatiently telling supporters of grammar schools that they are wrong, especially as so many were given an opportunity through those schools themselves. We need more kids from every background getting a chance to do these jobs in politics and the media. Grammar schools can help deliver this goal in the future, as they did in the past.