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A wholesale return to grammar schools would be a disaster

There’s a place for selective state schools but they must not derail years of successful reforms

17 September 2016

9:00 AM

17 September 2016

9:00 AM

It is almost mandatory, if you want to discuss grammar schools, to swap personal histories. Here’s mine: I am the beneficiary of three generations of social mobility, three generations of academic selection. My grandfather won a free scholarship to a public school (Christ’s Hospital) and left school at 16: his family needed him to work. But his education allowed him to become achartered surveyor. Both of my parents enjoyed free, selective education in schools that now charge about £16,000 a year.

My brothers and I won scholarships to private secondaries. The alternative comprehensives were poor quality and a bit scary — my parents were faced with terrible state-school options. Then the story gets better. I live three streets away from where I grew up, but the comprehensive has been replaced by an academy school rated ‘-outstanding’. The charity I set up, New Schools Network, helped found a new free school in the area. While I was at No. 10 working for Cameron and May, two more appeared. So mine is a different problem: choosing one of three excellent state primaries for my daughter.

So where did it all go right? Successive governments have built upon their predecessors’ achievements — the trend, from Kenneth Baker onwards, has been towards giving schools autonomy and promoting a system where parents choose schools. Ministers also persuaded a small but growing number of brilliant and courageous reformers to act — to fight and win the battles that politicians over the years had lost.

The reformers include academy groups such as Ark and Harris, great headteachers like Rachel de Souza and Michael Wilshaw (now head of Ofsted), and groups of teachers who have set up free schools. They have been vilified by unions, activists and the press. Their motives and achievements are constantly questioned, although not by the parents who flock to their oversubscribed (and non-selective) schools.

They haven’t succeeded everywhere — there are still plenty of areas with bad schools — but they have introduced ‘knowledge-based’ curriculums, tough standards and discipline, and high expectations.


It is against this backdrop thatselective education is now being reintroduced. The question now is how to use selection to enhance reform rather than derail it. Head teachers are worried: for years they have parried blows from the left. Now they face something they never expected: a hit from the right.

Until now, academic selection had been seen as a tool of the past. Grammars were, as Margaret Thatcher noted, ‘wildly unpopular’ when they were abolished — that’s why she agreed to close so many. Mrs T likedgrammar schools herself but after she became prime minister she didn’t turn back the clock. Instead, she looked for alternative ways to improve standards.

As she realised, the idea of selection by ability — a system designed to create an intellectual elite — was becoming unpopular the world over as the middle class grew. Most British families wanted a ‘grammar’ education for their children, but this was impossible when two thirds went to secondary moderns. Across Europe, democratic pressure saw a move away from selection and towards partially or completely comprehensive systems. In the few countries that maintained selective schools, like Germany, the percentage going to academic schools increased radically.

In Britain, nostalgia for grammars grew when it became clear that the new ‘comprehensives’ weren’t giving everyone the ‘grammar education’ every parent wanted; instead they were offering everyone asecondary modern. That’s why Thatcher introduced school autonomy in the late 1980s and, save for a brief pause in Tony Blair’s first term, reform hasn’t stopped. New Labour took the 15 city technology colleges set up by Thatcher as a model, and created more than 200academies. David Cameron, and Michael Gove allowed thousands of additionalacademies, and allowed new free schools to open. Today, a record number of students from deprived backgrounds are offereduniversity places, a testimony to their far better results at school.

Britain had joined a global reform movement. The US introduced ‘charter schools’, similar to our own free schools. Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark have their own versions of independent state schools. Our schools now have the freedom to offer precisely what parents were looking for when they turned against grammars: a ‘grammar education’ for every child, not the chosen few. With their uncompromising approach, the top academies — Harris, Ark, Outwood Grange, Inspiration, Dixons — have often outperformed grammar schools in spite of their mixed-ability intake. This seemed to settle the debate in the Tory party. Why pine for grammars, if something even better (and more progressive) had been created?

The obvious answer is that not enough good people were setting up academies. Standards are much better in London, where competition between schools is intense and parental choice is thewidest. But this is not the situation everywhere. The constant challenge for reformers issimple: how can you find enough good people to run new schools?

Theresa May’s idea was to pick four groups that epitomise academic rigour and ask them to expand into the state sector: universities, top private schools, the Catholic church and (finally) grammar schools. Her idea is simple: to increase the supply of good people running good schools, which is sensible. The optimistic scenario is that Mrs May’s reforms go within the flow of what is already happening. Let’s say we end up with 100 new grammars, 100 new Catholic schools and 100 new university and independently sponsored schools — each adding about 2 per cent to the number of secondaries. They might be concentrated in areas which are not helping academically gifted children —Knowsley in Merseyside, for example, has no A-level provision. A brilliant outcome would be the conversion of the great northern grammars back to selective state schools. Meanwhile, the government could continue to push academies as the most powerful tool for helping the greatest number of students. This would, in my view, raise standards.Theresa May could therefore add diversity and choice without having eroded any of her predecessors’ achievements.

But a sweeping return to a wholesale grammar system would, by contrast, quickly lose popular support — and may serve to dissolve the hard-won success of recent years. Existing academy groups will feel forced to set up a grammar school because if they don’t, someone else will — and steal their brightest pupils. It’s worth remembering that academies exist because the ban on academic selection forced schools to innovate, and to offer better teaching for all abilities. Their incredible success (and the successes of their pupils) demonstrated that we’d been writing off a lot of children who could, in fact, do well.

This is a perilous moment for school reform. The 30-year consensus against academic selection has been ended, and it’s not clear what will now follow. A few more grammars would add to quality and diversity, and do more good than harm. But the pursuit of grammars at the expense of academies and free schools could undo the extraordinary progress made in the last few years. Our new Prime Minister says that’s not what she wants, and that she intends to promote grammar style-education for all. That’s what we need.

Rachel Wolf is a former No. 10 adviser on education policy.


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