Theresa May has announced that existing grammar schools will be allowed to expand, new ones will be allowed to open, and existing non-selective schools will be allowed to become selective in some circumstances. The government will publish a green paper setting out parameters and options.
We need to wait for the green paper to understand whether we can expect reform or revolution. And of course there will be a battle to get any package through parliament.
Surely, though, the contradictions in Theresa May’s announcement are glaringly obvious to all.
She says: “We are going to build a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.” Ok – so “not just the privileged few” includes the vast majority of kids who won’t get into academically selective grammars.
She says “That is why I am announcing an ambitious package of education reforms to ensure that every child has the chance to go to a good school.” So this means that all schools need to be good.
She says “A fundamental part of that is having schools that give every child the best start in life, regardless of their background.” Okay, so these reforms are for every child, regardless of ability.
Hang on. This is a policy announcement almost entirely focused on selection. It focuses on providing a better education for the already more academically able! According to The Times (Friday Sept 9), under one option that will be explored, “only schools rated good or outstanding by Ofsted may be allowed to select”…. So the best schools will be allowed to turn away less academic pupils? This doesn’t make any sense.
Surely, the unfairness of focusing better education opportunities on the already most academically-able is glaringly obvious to all. What then is driving some Tory’s obsession with grammar schools?
I think we have a classic example of the tail wagging the dog. It goes like this:
– Grammar schools have traditionally offered a very good education and get very good results.
– Therefore we need more of them.
– Grammar schools use academic selection
…Okay so we need academic selection.
Notice how the grammar school obsession tends to be 100% about the tail? We just need more academic selection and by some mysterious process we will give every child the best start in life, including the vast majority who don’t get into grammars!
Shouldn’t we, instead, take a look at how grammar schools offer a good education? And then make that as widely available as possible? Perhaps to all children?
So what is it that grammar schools do – and what should the Conservative Government really be trying to offer to all children? The answer is at least two-fold. Foremostly, grammar schools offer a challenging academically rigorous education. Secondly, they have strong discipline and good behaviour.
Grammar schools offer a challenging academically rigorous education
Grammar schools tend to focus on a small set of core academic subjects and teach them rigorously, with extensive content, and high expectations around what the children will learn and retain. Isn’t this what all children deserve? This has been the main focus of the Conservative’s education reform over the past few years. At the school where I am a governor (West London Free School) this is the core of our ethos. The refrain that the school has used is that we should teach pupils “the best that has been thought and said”. If I had my way the school motto would be “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”. Isn’t this rigorous academic focus the good bit about grammar schools, and the bit that we should make available to all parents and children who want it?
Grammar schools tend to have strong discipline and good behaviour
The vast majority of parents despair when children bring home stories of disruption and poor behaviour in the classroom. They don’t like their children seeing rude or aggressive behaviour from other children. They don’t like to think of the disruption to learning if teachers are distracted and having to spend too much of their time managing behaviour.
Parents will try to keep their children “away” from such behaviour by choosing schools where they believe behaviour is good. We all know about the parents who “adopt a faith” to get their children into faith schools. If you think about it, particularly at primary level where academic results do not have much visibility, the popularity of faith schools is, in huge part, driven by parents’ desire for their children to be in a school with perceived good discipline and behaviour. I am sure this is also a large part of the popularity of grammar schools. Parents perceive that teachers will be able to get on and teach – and their children will be able to focus on learning.
Perhaps, then, Theresa May’s reforms should refocus on the dog and drop the tail. What if more schools adopt a grammar school ethos, but without the selection? This would mean we have more schools which teach academic subjects to all pupils and ensure they are taught rigorously with pupils building up and retaining extensive knowledge. And we would ensure that schools have the tools needed to ensure strong discipline and behaviour.
Theresa May said: “I am announcing an ambitious package of education reforms to ensure that every child has the chance to go to a good school … that gives every child the best start in life … regardless of their background“.
I hope this is, indeed, where we end up. In order to give every child the best start in life, regardless of their background, we need “grammar schools” for all who want them, with rigorous teaching as well as strong discipline and behaviour, but without academic selection.