I like the sound of my own opinions. (A characteristic that I imagine to be common to most bloggers.) But I do find it depressing to find myself opining repeatedly on policies causing anxiety, frustration and concern to the majority, especially when the available evidence supports a different policy-course altogether. Such frustration has clearly been felt by academics, commentators, politicians and teachers long-opposed to a return to selection and grammar schools, as news of Theresa May’s desire for more grammar schools has filled the airwaves for the last week. (On the plus side, she has succeeded in creating some unity across political divides and amongst the educational establishment!)
Even the BBC, normally so anxious to produce two sides to a policy argument (even when that leads to completely lopsided arguments being presented as if opinion was equally divided), had to portray Theresa May’s stance as politically-motivated rather than arguable on the basis of evidence. That’s because the evidence clearly shows that selection at 11 does not improve educational attainment across the system, nor does it advance social mobility. Grammar schools are good at stretching the pupils who attend them, not at improving the life chances of those who don’t.
Theresa May has been very clever. She is portraying ‘meritocracy’ as somehow intrinsic to our sense of ‘British values’ (whatever they are). And she is banking on the assumption that we Brits, supposedly, care more about potential than reality. In her world of potential, every ‘deserving’ child could get a place in the grammar school; in the real world, of course, the majority will be rejected. Like the Free Schools debacle, where increasing the choice of schools is presented as more relevant than improving all schools, this is a policy for parents, not for pupils. In another similarity, it’s very difficult to see how a return to selection is practically possible outside large towns and cities, unless all schools are suddenly to be provided with the additional resources required to bus children from one market town to another. I’ve got to hand it to Mrs May (and to Justine Greening, who as Education Secretary is the person actually charged with trying to make it happen): so far they’ve managed to talk about returning to a pass/fail system as if it’s an ‘everyone gets a prize’ system. As if their new selection system will be like the modern version of pass-the-parcel where there’s a sweet in every layer, rather than one single prize in the very middle of the parcel like there was when I was a child.
Education isn’t a prize. Or it shouldn’t be. It’s a right. Leaving aside the arguments in favour of a comprehensive system from an educational and social perspective, there’s a far more simple problem Mrs May could have chosen to address: there simply isn’t enough money in the system right now for all schools to provide that basic educational right for their pupils in a way which actually meets their needs. Structural changes cost money (ask the NHS), as well as creating uncertainty for staff and children. If she really believes all children really do deserve a good education, surely the target for her limited resources should be improving the educational and life chances of ALL the children in the poorest areas, not just the academically gifted ones?
I passed the eleven-plus, being in the last year group in Somerset to go through selection, and I got a good education in a school that was half grammar, half private (that being the kind of compromise that school systems had to make in rural areas). My children are getting a good education now – but in a properly comprehensive school which doesn’t educate them at the expense of their peers, like mine did. For all the attempts at assuring us that the new policy will not result in the same two-tier system that operated when grammar schools were last commonplace, it is impossible to see how this could actually be done in practice given the limited resources available.
Rant nearly over for now, though doubtless set to be repeated over the coming weeks. One more point for now: the White Paper on education that was published earlier this year included, amongst the chaos of mass-academisation, the proposal that teachers do not need to be qualified. Quite where the White Paper sits in Justine Greening’s in-tray is currently unclear, but if the proposals in it carry on through parliament, we are left with the very real possibility that not only will many schools be losing funding under the new funding formula – in addition to the financial squeeze all schools are under anyway – some schools will be employing unqualified teachers. (And I’ll bet it won’t be the selective ones.) So much for improving our education system. If they carry on like this, there won’t be a parcel to pass around at all.