What’s changed as Tories turn against grammars

STEVE DOWNES After many years of bitter disagreement over grammar schools, Labour and the Conservatives are suddenly singing from the same hymn sheet. But, asks education correspondent STEVE DOWNES, what does it mean for two proposed Norfolk academies – and the county’s education system?

STEVE DOWNES

After many years of bitter disagreement over grammar schools, Labour and the Conservatives are suddenly singing from the same hymn sheet. But, asks education correspondent STEVE DOWNES, what does it mean for two proposed Norfolk academies - and the county's education system?

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People have been mischievously suggesting for quite some time that New Labour are just Tories with a token red rose on their suburban mantelpiece.

But perhaps the Tories are simply New Labour with a blue rinse.

For yesterday's announcement by shadow education secretary David Willetts that the Conservatives have ended their long love affair with grammar schools puts the two parties on the same side in terms of education policy.

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And the allied revelation that they would open more of Tony Blair's favoured city academies if they returned to government leaves the reds and the blues merged together to make, what, purple?

That was no doubt the colour of Lord Tebbit's face yesterday as he and other Tory traditionalists choked on their cornflakes at David Cameron's latest abandonment of the true blue values.

For their benefit, this is what Mr Willetts said.

“We must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids.

“This is a widespread belief but we just have to recognise that there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage; it does not spread it.

“A Conservative agenda for education will not be about just helping a minority of pupils escape a bad education. We want better schools for all, based on fair admission and fair funding.”

It's a surprising change of direction. In Norfolk, however, the volte-face is unlikely to have too much impact.

Unlike 10 counties, including Kent and Buckinghamshire, which have more than 25pc of their pupils in grammar schools, Norfolk has a grand total of zero.

Thetford Grammar alone has the title, but it is a bit of a smokescreen as the school is actually independent.

If you go back 35 years, the picture was quite different. The education system in Norfolk and the rest of the country was still locked into the two-tier set-up introduced by the government after the second world war.

Secondary moderns were intended for children who were likely to go into a trade, while grammar schools took youngsters considered to be the brightest academic sparks, who were destined for more cerebral careers.

Selection hinged on the notorious 11-plus exam, which even today brings older people out in a cold sweat. One good or bad day in the classroom could effectively dictate how bright your future was.

Best friends and, in extreme cases, even twins, could find themselves separated for the sake of a mark.

In the 1960s, it was generally accepted that the sec-mod/grammar school system was discriminatory and was not getting the best out of all children.

The decision was taken to switch to the system which is dominant in most of the country today - comprehensive schools.

However, local authorities were left to set their own timetables for change. Some dragged their heels - thus we have the legacy of mainly comprehensives, with a smattering of 164 grammar schools.

In Norfolk, grammar schools including CNS, the Blyth, King Edward VII, Yarmouth, Thetford and Paston gradually metamorphosed into something different.

So now the era of academic selection is behind us. Or is it?

In recent years, there have been mutterings about back-door selection of students on the basis of aptitude.

Setting aside the fact that Norfolk's growing network of specialist schools is allowed by law to select up to 10pc of pupils, there are concerns that other, less obvious, means are being used.

The most prevalent, certainly in areas like Wymondham and the more popular parts of Norwich and the main towns, is parents moving house to get their children into a chosen school's catchment area.

Once a school gets a reputation for good exam results, aspirational parents move in. House prices then go up to reflect the area's popularity, and before long the low-income families are priced out of the market.

Some would argue that a more insidious grammar school system is being produced.

The opposite effect happens at less popular schools, which see ambitious parents moving away, leaving their reputations damaged and their rolls dominated by children from families with lower aspirations.

They may all be called high schools, but effectively the county has an all new secondary modern and grammar school system in all but name.

Perhaps the most significant Norfolk fallout from yesterday's Tory bombshell will be its effect on academies.

There are currently two earmarked for the county - one at The Park High in King's Lynn, sponsored by the Royal Society of Arts, and the other at Heartsease High in Norwich.

The second is by far the most controversial.

Sponsored by Christian philanthropist Graham Dacre and the Bishop of Norwich, its “faith” aspect has sparked a storm of protest.

The two sponsors are adamant that the academy plan, which is currently out to public consultation, would not be a “faith school”.

Opponents are suspicious, and are also worried that if the project gets the government go-ahead it could harm neighbouring schools.

In theory, the success or failure of the scheme is still a 50/50 call.

But two developments in 24 hours at the top of the political tree appear to have skewed it in the academy's favour.

First, PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown surprised some people by pledging to continue to back and expand the number of Mr Blair's controversial academies.

Then Mr Willetts said the Conservatives had fallen out of love with grammar schools - but were instead making eyes at academies.

He said Mr Blair's academy model of privately sponsored independent state schools was “a powerful route to higher standards”.

The dual support of the two main political parties must mean that if the Heartsease and Park High bids succeed, their long-term future is set in stone.

While just one party was behind academies, any power-shift at the top could theoretically have seen academies swept into the bin.

Now, they are here to stay.

Of course, the Tories' sudden disdain for grammar schools is somewhat undermined by their enthusiasm for academies. For one of the most contentious aspects of academies is their right to control their own admissions.

While the sponsors of the Heartsease academy have promised to retain the current admissions policy, making it open to children of all abilities from the catchment area, the backers of future schemes - and there are 400 planned for England - could take a different line.

Critics would argue that all that Tories have done is move from backing grammar schools by name to backing grammar schools by nature - namely academies.

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