As John Glen wrote on this site yesterday, our education system is pluriform: “we now have free schools, faith schools, academies, University Technical Colleges, comprehensives, studio schools, and City Technology Colleges”. It has become more so over time. Tony Blair allowed more school specialisation. Michael Gove developed his academies idea, and introduced free schools.
This is the context in which to place Theresa May’s support for lifting the ban that Blair introduced on new grammar schools. There are good reasons not to want to return to the sheep-and-goats system that existed before comprehensivisation (an ugly word for an ugly thing). Those who wish to do so are confusing selection with the eleven plus: the two may overlap, but they aren’t identical. There are big questions about its fairness as a test. And, in any event, eleven is a young age to use as a norm for separating pupils into academic and non-academic streams.
During the last Parliament, Welsh Conservatives supported a process leading to selection at 14, based on the preferences of the child and parents in the light of recommendations from teachers. This would be a more sensible route for people who want grammar schools in their areas to take, and whether an area has them or not should be a local decision. The best model for new ones would be for them that draw widely in their recruitment of pupils, which would minimise the danger of local sink schools, and aim in particular to admit bright pupils from poorer backgrounds who get a raw deal from the present system. They would be ConservativeHome has called “meritocracy schools”.
Glen’s article was the fifth guest article on grammar schools that this site has run in scarcely more than a month. All of them have something valuable to say. Some of them have not supported more selective schools – or have at least expressed reservations about the idea. But, either way, this profusion of articles is a sign of the interest that grammars excite within the Conservative family. We were offered another only yesterday. Another Conservative MP also wants to write on the subject. By contrast, the editors aren’t swamped with offerings of pieces about the merits and demerits of opening new technical schools.
But, in the mixed system that now exists, having good technical schools is just as important as having good selective schools: arguably more so, since the former have so often been neglected. The failure of Butler’s tripartite system to develop the technical colleges it envisaged is a matter of Tory legend – and of fact. This reflected a deep bias in the commanding heights of our culture for the academic over the vocational. Little wonder that over half a century on we have some of the best Universities in the world, but lag behind many other countries on skills.
ConservativeHome has argued for a major resource shift to vocational education, and a succession of Ministers have worked hard to improve and extend apprenticeships. One model for the future is the University Technical Colleges that Glen mentioned yesterday – the network of schools set up by Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s Education Secretary.
These UTCs provide vocational training for nearly 10,000 pupils who, as a recent report for the Financial Times put it, “find the standard curriculum a poor fit for their proclivities and ambitions….at Sheffield’s UTC, boys and girls of startling maturity are learning robotics from a technician seconded here by Siemens, in a mini-factory sponsored by Festo. The subjects may be hard – maths, physics and engineering – but in the lab they have a clear, practical use.”
We need more of such projects, and more debate about them in the Conservative family, than we get at present – amidst a mixed system in which academies will remain the norm.