Quite a few people I know have been disappointed by the election result and seem to think that Labour lost. I don’t agree. Although it will be a few weeks before we see where this lame duck administration is going, one thing we can celebrate now is that their plans for grammar schools are not going to come to fruition. Even the enthusiasts are now only talking about trialling the idea, overlooking the fact that we have had a prolonged trial with negative outcomes and no positive results for the best part of a hundred years!
I think Theresa May will be disappointed. This was her sloppy ideology but it was also cheap policy. It would only have been necessary to fund one or two grammar schools and to allow just a whiff of selection into the system for many schools to feel compelled to follow.
Of course, we like to think that schools would be far too principled but we have to remember that schools have existed in an atmosphere of government-sponsored competition since around 1990 and the notion of an outstanding school is based heavily on its academic performance. Also, there are many senior teachers who remember what it was like – or who know from their own experience – how damaging it is to reputation, to teachers and pupils to have a grammar school down the road creaming off the top 10% of the intake year on year. As if schools don’t have enough to contend with!
So, opening the doors to selection would have compelled many schools across the nation to apply to become grammar schools. The chief executives of multi-academy trusts could easily have been persuaded and good schools, feeling they did not want to be left behind, would join in. There are many schools with a strong moral purpose and determination to be the best that they can and they would have followed unwillingly. The money would have become an irrelevance. Other secondary schools would have tried to compete by introducing a grammar stream in Year 7 and torpedoing the comprehensive ideal along the way.
Then, there would be the testing. Key stage 2 testing since its introduction in the early 1990s has been an unmitigated disaster, unreliable and unfit for purpose. Giving some crackpot organisations the job of recreating the 11+ would lead to the most extraordinary botch because meeting the requirements of right-wing politicians who have no idea what children are capable of at that age while trying to devise a test where tutoring and teaching to the test would not make it easier to succeed would lead to some barmy results. And, if you are trying to divide up sheep and goats at least make sure you can recognise them accurately!
Locally, it never occurs to those who support grammar schools that in the past a grammar school in one area was very different from a grammar school in another. The differences were caused by the social characteristics – or levels of affluence and deprivation in the community – and the amount of ‘creaming off’ which the system allowed. The DFE would have a lot of trouble introducing a fair system because there simply aren’t any reliable statistics which would help them.
Politically, it is also government policy to nurture a school led system as opposed to one managed by local authorities. This policy relies on mutual support and networking and the introduction of a system where introducing selection in one school would change the performance, image and reputation of another would have destroyed it. Even with the rumours that this might happen last year, schools were preparing contingency plans and they didn’t involve collaboration! There were pious statements about everyone agreeing not to be involved but a bit of cash and the lure of some nice exclusive pupils would have been irresistible.
In the end, the people behind grammar schools also want privatisation. Conservative governments have already turned a blind eye to their own favourite schools finding devious ways to select – from churchgoing habits to expensive uniforms. They would love to see charter schools sitting somewhere between the state system, for the oiks, and the independent sector – coupled with some kind of top up fees and the end of not-for-profit schooling in the UK.
We should all be extremely pleased that all of this has been avoided. The grammar school policy, whatever it might cost, was going to be unfair, divisive and ideologically flawed. Good riddance to it!