Rob Leitch is Deputy Leader of Bexley Council, and an Assistant Headteacher of a secondary school in South East London.
Grammar Schools. Two words which provoke passion, debate and emotion throughout the world of education – and beyond. For the advocates of selective education, whose defence of grammar schools seemed like a losing battle under Tony Blair and David Cameron, the political tide seems to have turned quickly. At the other end of the education spectrum, non-selective educationalists, long in the ascendency in educational theory, are now readying themselves for battle. The return of the grammar school wars has arrived, and it’s not going to be pretty.
As a student, I attended both a comprehensive and grammar school. However, during my teaching career, I have only taught in non-selective schools, albeit located in heavily selective areas in North Kent and South-East London – one of the final frontiers of grammar school presence. As both student and teacher, I have witnessed first-hand the benefits and consequences of the grammar school system, and am clear that there is a place for new grammar schools, but only with strict conditions:
- Grammar schools should only be allowed to start or expand in areas which lack an academic offering. Let’s not kid ourselves, grammar schools attract the most academically able children. They offer the most academic courses and subjects, particularly at A Level, and as a result of the higher inputs (gifted students), they achieve higher outputs (impressive results). For non-grammars, this basic formula is hugely frustrating. Yet it is wrong for the current postcode lottery to continue. Some areas have a strong academic offering, others do not: new grammar schools could level that playing field, but the Department for Education should only sanction them in specific areas of high need/high deprivation.
- There must be a diverse and mixed school economy in each local area. A failure of the school system in the past was that too many students were pushed into a ‘one size fits all’ approach. An excess of similar schools within a small geographical area is bad for a local school economy, parental choice and student engagement. Rather, each area should have a strong academic, creative, vocational and technical offering. The local school economy should reflect the differing skills and talents of young people – and the needs of the wider economy – whilst also providing the widest possible choice for prospective parents.
- Ofsted and the DfE must review their criteria for judgements. It is simply not fair to judge and compare schools by attainment outcomes when, in selective areas, the grammar schools will take the top 10-15 per cent of able students from primary schools. The impact on other neighbouring secondary schools is substantial and, if everyone is compared on a generic attainment measure, non-selective school reputations will suffer. Measuring progress from KS3 starting points is a much fairer approach to gauge school success. Ofsted will need to consider and appreciate the relative student profiles of schools in a more meaningful manner than it does at present.
- Selection testing should be unseen. It is wrong to hold selection tests on specific days, with mock papers available for middle class parents to buy and tutor their children for. If this remains the mode of selection testing, any new grammar schools risk inadvertently reinstating the class system. The fact that houses in my area are worth a premium because they are down the road from local grammar schools show how selective education can create quasi-private institutions – the reserve of those who can afford house prices in certain areas or private tutoring. All selection testing should be undertaken by primary schools in a holistic manner, with each making informed, teacher-led recommendations on student potential for an academic route. Furthermore, the introduction of multiple entry points (11+, 12+, 13+ etc) would ensure opportunity and incentive for young people whose academic abilities develop at a later stage.
- Grammars must continue to play their part in improving social mobility. One of the greatest benefits of grammar schools for most Conservatives is the principle that any bright young child, from any background, can be admitted and succeed. Yet to avoid middle-class ownership of the grammar system, as described above, all new grammar schools should be required to fill a minimum percentage of its placements with bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds. At present, fewer than three per cent of grammar school students enter on free schools meals, compared to a national average of over 15 per cent. If new grammar schools are to be allowed, that figure must change. By reserving allocations for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, advocates can truly believe in the social mobility argument.
In the upcoming debate over grammar schools, many will make the fatal mistake of turning the debate into ‘grammars vs the rest’. There is no need for this ‘us and them’ mentality: we need diversity in our school system and, where new grammar schools can enrich the local offer, they should be endorsed. However, the same passion should be applied in equal measure to ensuring that creative, technical and vocational offerings also exist, each with the same level of high expectations that is so often associated with grammar schools. Grammar schools should not be the pinnacle of our education system, but nor should they be the estranged relation: they have an important role to play.