Yesterday’s Times carried a story about a campaign by Birmingham parents against proposals to lower admission standards to local grammar schools.
The King Edward VI Academy Trust, which apparently runs six selective schools in the city, has unveiled proposals to give “priority to disadvantaged and local children”, rather than selecting purely on academic merit.
Such initiatives have the Government’s support. When ministers announced that existing selective schools would be allowed to expand, one of the conditions attached to the £50 million per annum fund was that they take steps to, in the Times’ words, “admit more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds”. This is presumably intended to appease those who argue that, on current evidence, grammar schools aren’t the engines for social mobility they’re often portrayed as.
However, this simply highlights the fact that the Government has misunderstood the argument for expanding grammar schools.
Until very recently, places at grammar schools were severely restricted – but, of course, highly sought after. Just as in any other market where supply is unable to expand to meet demand, competition for the scarce commodity rose and kept rising. This gave a big advantage to those parents who could afford to provide their children with extra tuition for the entrance exams. It also meant that the remaining grammars received applications from a much broader radius than ordinary schools, increasing the competitive pressure still further.
As a result, today’s grammars can look as if they simply amplify middle-class advantage. But it is a poor argument against grammar schools which can be resolved by building more of them. Expanding existing selective schools, and opening new ones, would ease competitive pressures and help “bright children living on the doorstep of the school” gain admission without cutting standards.
One of the unfortunate side-effects of Brexit has been that the energy seems to have gone out of the Government’s education agenda. Making any move on grammars was a bold choice, but as I wrote a few years ago the case to be made for them today is very different to the original ‘tripartite’ model of the 1950s. Where once children were sorted into ‘academic’, ‘technical’, and ‘miscellaneous’, modern selective schools can find their place in a diverse spectrum of specialist schools which cater to a much broader range of learning styles.
The way to solve the challenges posed by academic selection is to make sure that there are sufficient places for those that need them, and first-rate alternatives (such as the new T-Level) for those who don’t. Not to lower standards.