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Grammar schools debate: eight key questions and answers

PUBLISHED: 06:45 22 September 2016

King Edward VII grammar school, King's Lynn. Date: 1973

King Edward VII grammar school, King's Lynn. Date: 1973

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The government wants to create grammar schools. As parents, councils, schools, academy chains, private schools and universities assess what it means, we answer some of the key questions.

Analysis: making grammar schools seem old and new

The government has a tricky balancing act when promoting the return of grammar schools, education correspondent Martin George writes.

On the one hand, it wants to appeal to traditionalists within the Conservative Party, many of whom believe grammar schools in the 1950s and 1960s offered bright children from poor backgrounds a ladder out of poverty, not to mention supporters of Ukip, which has long been pro-grammar school.

But on the other hand, it wants to show this is not simply a return to the grammar schools many of its supporters remember fondly, but is instead something new, for the 21st century.

This is because, as ministers and the government’s own Green Paper have implicitly accepted, research about existing grammar school systems show that, while individual pupils may do well, overall, children from poorer backgrounds across a wider area do not benefit.

That is awkward for ministers, as improved social mobility is their chosen ground to justify their proposals.

Persuading dubious Tory modernisers that these new proposals are sufficiently different to the current grammar school system may be the key to getting the proposals through the Commons, but their passage through the House of Lords is much less likely.

Expect grammar schools to be a big issue in the next election.

What is the government actually proposing?

New prime minister Theresa May came out strongly in favour of grammar schools in her first major domestic policy announcement.

Her plans to increase selection in the state education system has three main strands: support for existing grammar schools to expand – with government funding of up to £50m a year to help this happen; allowing the creation of new schools that either partly or wholly select their pupils on the basis of academic ability; and allowing existing non-selective schools to become selective.

City of Norwich Grammar School. Date: 1950City of Norwich Grammar School. Date: 1950

Ministers argues more selection will create a more meritocratic society.

How many grammar schools are there at the moment?

There are currently 163 government-funded grammar schools in England, compared to a peak of 1,298 in 1964.

Their number fell dramatically between the late 1960s and late 1970s, and in 1998 the Labour government passed a law preventing any new grammar schools opening.

There are currently no state grammar schools in Norfolk, Suffolk or Cambridgeshire.

So, this sounds like a big change in policy.

It is.

The Conservative Party’s previous leadership opposed the expansion of grammar schools, despite the support they find among many party members. Instead, former education secretary Michael Gove promoted free schools and academies – state schools that are independent of local councils – as a way of improving all schools without using academic selection.

What does the evidence say about grammar schools?

Grammar schools achieve better results than non-grammar schools – both in terms of Ofsted judgements and GCSE grades – and there is evidence their students from poorer backgrounds get a greater advantage from attending than their peers.

However, research by the Sutton Trust in 2013 found children who are entitled to free school meals – a proxy for coming from a disadvantaged background – are significantly under-represented in grammar schools, compared to other children of similar ability.

And an Education Datalab briefing this month said: “In existing selective areas, there is a greater disparity in education performance between children from poor neighbourhoods, and children from wealthier neighbourhoods.”

So is the government wrong to say it increases social mobility?

Not necessarily. Ministers stress they are not returning to the 1950s system of grammar schools and secondary moderns, and they would place conditions on new or expanding selective schools, which could force them to take a proportion of pupils from lower income homes, or set up a primary feeder school in an area with a “higher density of lower income households”.

Is anything like to change locally?

Norfolk County Council says it is too early to say what its position will be, and some leading headteachers and academy trusts have said they have no intention of becoming selective.

It is difficult to see how selection would work in rural communities with only one high school, but it may be more feasible in larger towns.

Some trusts have said that if a competitor became selective, they may have to do likewise to retain or attract the brightest pupils.

Would grammar schools have an impact on private schools?

Quite possibly. Some parents pay to go private so their children can have a ‘grammar school education’, so the re-introduction of grammar schools may make them more willing to stay in the state sector.

Dominic Findlay, headmaster of Langley School, said grammar schools could provide “healthy competition” for the independent sector, and stressed parents often go private for opportunities outside the classroom.

What is the timescale, and will the plans actually happen?

The government consultation ends on December 12, but it is far from certain it can get its plans through the Commons, where it has a small majority, let alone the Lords, where it has none.

What do key figures in our local education landscape think about the proposals?

Dick Palmer, chief executive of the Transforming Education in Norfolk (Ten) Group: “I attended a grammar school in Wales in the 60s, when the system was even more selective because you had local and county grammar schools. The county grammar school was considered the crème-de-la-crème.

“It was an all-boys school and I was there from 11 to 18. My experience as a grammar school pupil was positive and it certainly helped me in my subsequent career, giving me a real passion for education.

“However my firm professional belief is that selective education isn’t the right thing for the UK. There is so much evidence that selective education doesn’t improve outcomes for the majority. I would strongly echo the sentiments of [Ofsted chief inspector] Sir Michael Wilshaw that we will be failing as a country if we only get the top 15 to 20pc of our children achieving well.

“It’s not a party political view, it’s about the evidence and the educational philosophy of this country.”

Scott Lyons, joint division secretary for Norfolk NUT: “We are totally opposed to it. It is ‘separation, separation, separation’.

“We have got issues with the tests. Summer-born children are straight away at a disadvantage at 11, compared to their September-born peers.

“For 20 years we have been fighting for inclusion in schools, and now children with special education needs and disabilities are going to be segregated from their siblings and friends.

“There is a lack of evidence that grammar schools actually help. All the evidence shows it does not help social mobility.

“What really appeals is the illusion of choice, but there’s less choice. How is there competition if there’s one school that’s a grammar, and one that’s not selective? There’s going to be less choice for parents.

“The grammar school idea is beautiful in the abstract, until your child does not get in.

“The reality is that they are not picking on ability. They are picking on a parent’s ability to pay for private tutoring, and their access to books, and how the children access middle-class vocabulary.”

Brian Conway, headteacher of Notre Dame High School in Norwich, and a product of the grammar school system in Northern Ireland: “Dividing children at 11 is wrong, because children develop at different rates.

“We need really dedicated young people who are going to be really productive. If you start to separate out education at that age, we are damaging the potential outcomes for these children, and the country.

“Comprehensive education has its faults, but if you use it properly, with things like setting within schools, you bring out the best in everyone.

“If you have started having some schools that select, it just generates more schools being forced down that selective route.

“Philosophically, I don’t think they provide a better education for the wider community of people. I can’t see a situation where we as a trust would be looking at opening a grammar school, and I think it’s not going to benefit the children of Norfolk if some people go down that route.”

Dominic Findlay, headmaster of Langley School, an independent fee-paying school near Loddon: “I disagree with grammar schools personally. My concern is for what happens to the state sector. Theresa May talks about guaranteeing places for social mobility, but there will be state schools that will be left with the weaker students.”

Dame Rachel de Souza, chief executive of the Inspiration Trust: “We support the government’s desire to give families the chance to choose the right type of school for them, and our successful free schools in Great Yarmouth and Norwich show there is a demand for new approaches.

“Our trust was set up to offer high quality academic education to all young people, regardless of their background, so we have no plans to introduce academic selection at our schools. With excellent teaching and strong sport and arts outside the classroom, every student has the potential to succeed at the highest levels.”

Key quotes from prime minister Theresa May’s speech on grammar schools

“We know that grammar schools are hugely popular with parents. We know they are good for the pupils that attend them. Indeed, the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils is reduced to almost zero for children in selective schools. And we know that they want to expand.

“They provide a stretching education for the most academically able, regardless of their background, and they deliver outstanding results.

“There is nothing meritocratic about standing in the way of giving our most academically gifted children the specialist and tailored support that can enable them to fulfil their potential.

“In a true meritocracy, we should not be apologetic about stretching the most academically able to the very highest standards of excellence.”

“We are going to ask new grammars to demonstrate that they will attract pupils from different backgrounds by taking a proportion of children from lower income households.

“And existing grammars will be expected to do more too – by working with local primary schools to help children from more disadvantaged backgrounds to apply.”

“There are those who argue that grammars don’t actually select on ability because wealthy families can pay tutors to help their children get through the tests.

“This might have been the case in the past with the old 11-plus. But it does not have to be the case today.

“While there is no such thing as a tutor-proof test, many selective schools are already employing much smarter tests that assess the true potential of every child. So new grammars will be able to select in a fair and meritocratic way, not on the ability of parents to pay.”


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