After years of anticipation by the Conservative Party’s right-wing, grammar schools are back on the agenda. There’s something depressing about the cyclical nature of political debates, more so because each cycle never seems to be triggered by new research but rather long-held opinions bubbling to the surface.
A recent poll indicated two-thirds of parents would send their child to a grammar school, suggesting most parents believe grammars offer a better quality of education. Of course the point about academic selection is that even if grammar schools were ‘better’ the whole point of the system is that it only works if most kids can’t go. Under the grammar system two-thirds of children were excluded from these ‘better’ schools.
So the question really isn’t about grammars, it’s about whether re-introducing academic selection improves the English education system as a whole. Given that education is how we teach children to think logically we can at least hope the Government would adopt a logical approach in designing an educational system.
Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case here. The response from education experts to a proposed return to grammar schools has been almost universal criticism, both on the grounds that it reinforces inequalities and doesn’t improve education overall.
There’s considerable data at their disposal, from cohort studies before and after the introduction of comprehensives, to studying comparative systems internationally, to analysing the performance of English authorities which retained grammar schools relative to those which haven’t. Time and time again the same conclusion comes back: the grammar school system does not improve education overall but it does solidify inequalities in people’s backgrounds.
Theresa May is right to highlight that selection by the backdoor already exists in our system, but that is something we need to overcome, not entrench. The world’s top education systems succeed by ensuring every school is good, not by haggling over who gets to go where. We’re suffering a shortage of school places, a mass-exodus of teachers from the profession and over half a million pupils are in super-sized classes. This debate is an unnecessary distraction at a time of trouble.