Over the past couple of weeks I’ve become increasingly worried about the government’s actions regarding grammar schools. I fundamentally feel that the education system in the UK needs to focus more heavily on choice rather than selection. It worries me progress made at achieving a more fair society will be put back decades by reintroducing grammars, as class based schooling begins again. Below is an open letter that I’ve written to Rt Hon Justine Greening MP (through my MP Rt Hon Andrew Smith).
I thoroughly recommend the Myth of Meritocracy by James Bloodworth, this is one of the books I’ve got on the go for my spare time reading!!
I am writing to you about the current government’s actions with regards to the removal of the memorandum on grammar schools. Please would you pass my concerns onto the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP, the Secretary of State for Education. I feel that this debate is especially relevant to the constituents of Oxford East, with it recently having been categorized as in the bottom decile of constituencies in the Social Mobility Index.
I would firstly like to clarify the Secretary of State’s justification for beginning to consider the old grammar school system. It is my worry that the actions that she is taking could very well inhibit social mobility further, rather than promoting it. As I am sure she is aware, a child in one of the 163 current selective grammar schools in the UK are 4-5 times more likely to have come from an independent prep school than from a disadvantaged background. Looking at the system in Kent where approximately 1/3rd of students are educated at grammars the disparity is exemplified with 6.3% of students in receipt of the pupil premium compared to 26.9% at Kent comprehensive schools. Students are also 9 times less likely to be in the care of Kent County Council. Are these not significant reasons why selection at age 11 is fundamentally flawed?
Implementing a grammar system in a county such as Oxfordshire would grossly inflate the current inequalities that exist. Firstly because of the disparity in primary level provision, 6 state primary schools in Oxfordshire currently see 100% of students achieve the Level 4 government base mark in their KS2 SATs while other schools see 48% of students achieving this. Bright and average students at the high flying, more affluent primaries may benefit from a grammar based education, but what about the students who are already being failed by the state, who may fail the 11 plus with little support. I understand that you plan to implement a quota based system for the allocation of some disadvantaged students, does the need for you to implement such a measure not go to show how doomed your planned meritocracy will be? You aim to eradicate “selection by house price” for secondary schools by implementing grammars, but do you not feel that you may simply make living near good primary schools more desirable and therefore more costly? Furthermore, how are you planning on overcoming the significant bias that students with parents who can afford to tutor their children will benefit from? Attempts to do this in Buckinghamshire with a new exam that was “more resistant to tutoring” have completely failed, with inequalities increasing rather than decreasing.
I know that many of the arguments surrounding the benefits of grammar schools revolve around anecdotal tales of social mobility from the previous system. However do you not agree that post war in the UK right up to the 1990s saw a huge shift in workers from blue collar to white collar jobs, this led to a significant number of people moving from “working class” backgrounds into “middle class” professions. Thus social mobility in this era changed as a result of structural changes in our economy rather than as a result of grammar schools. Many government ministers, and Theresa May herself have recently been quoted by the press claiming that “comprehensive education sacrifices children’s potential” and that “grammar schools promote social mobility”, please would you refer me to what evidence these claims are based from?
Would a more effective system of education not be one based upon choice, rather than selection? Why does the government object to a system that would allow a much greater level of autonomy to students? Where students can select institutions which are “academic” and those that are “vocational”. One of the main arguments used in favour of a grammar based system is that grammar schools separate those who “want to learn” and those who disrupt lessons. Surely one reason who students disrupt lessons is that they’re not learning what they want to learn, with choice many of these students would attend schools that would focus on vocational qualifications. For example UTC Oxfordshire, is a school which takes students from year 10 onwards and focuses on technical skills including engineering, additionally the South Oxfordshire Food and Education Alliance takes students post GCSE and trains them in warehouse (and other) skills to ready them for employment. Surely if your aim is a true meritocracy then equality of opportunity is key, with selection at age 11 this is fundamentally not possible, but by providing students choices this aim is achieved.
May I lastly point out that this is such a drastic policy change that surely it requires the mandate of the general public? In the Conservative manifesto that you were elected with in 2015 there is no mention of this policy change on grammar schools, is it surely not up to the public to decide such a significant change to education in this country? –