The emotive subject of new grammar schools bubbled over in Parliament on Thursday after reports that Theresa May told backbenchers that she supports lifting the ban on grammar schools.
Theresa May reveals new plans for grammar schools
Justine Greening tried to calm things down stating in Parliament that "There will be no return to the simplistic binary choice of the past where schools split children into winners and losers, successes and failures"; and Theresa May revealed all in her speech at the British Academy in London on Friday. New grammar schools were banned by the Blair government in 1998 and there are currently 163 grammar schools in England out of a total of 3,000 state-funded secondary schools. Theresa May plans to encourage new or expanding grammar schools as long as their intake includes a proportion of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, in an attempt to increase the number of good school places and ensure all children have the best start in life.
Michael Wilshaw is incensed; in his speech at the London Councils Education Summit on 5 September he described the thinking that grammar schools are good for the poor as “tosh and nonsense” and posed the question, “If they are such a good thing for poor children, then why are poor children here in the capital doing so much better than their counterparts in those parts of the country that operate selection?”. The Chief Inspector of Schools cited outcomes for young people in Hackney, where the gap in attainment at key stage 4 between free school meal and non-free school meal pupils is 14.6%. In Kent, which operates selection, the gap is nearly 34%.
It is soul-destroying when policy-makers don’t use evidence to guide their thinking. We spend a lot of time at One Education commissioning research, and encouraging school leaders to use evidence and research to inform their decision-making, so it is really unhelpful when the government doesn’t lead by example. More research into the area of selective education is undoubtedly needed; it is a highly emotive subject and any debate needs to start with what we really know. Of course we can all see that grammar schools get great GCSE outcomes with progress between KS2 and KS4 outstripping that of non-grammar schools. From the research, we also know that three quarters of grammar schools are single sex schools with sixth forms and that they are filled with pupils whose progress at KS1 to KS2 was already accelerated. With all these variables accounted for, Sutton Trust research indicates grammar schools show a small positive advantage over non-grammar schools but warns that even this could be due to inadequate data and evaluation bias; nor does it provide answers to the impact on outcomes for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds who are not in grammar schools.
What happens next?
It is early days, Theresa May’s ideas were not in the Conservative manifesto and nothing is going to change in the immediate future. The government have yet to set out the real detail behind their ideas and consult on them, and even after that the resulting bill may not ultimately find support in Parliament, but clearly there are plans afoot and a decision will ultimately be made without proper attention to research.