Thoughts on the government’s plans for new grammar schools

An article by Phil Karnavas, Executive Principal of The Canterbury Academy

Given the confusion and division, in cabinet and the country, caused by the challenges of  ‘Brexit’ it now seems that the grammar school announcement was a knee jerk reaction to win over elements of the populist right and an attempt by our new Prime Minister to  distance herself from her predecessor’s public school ‘chumocracy’.  Thus, was a policy born !

In a confusion of assertion for argument, and opinion for evidence, we are gifted an ill-conceived idea that seems rooted in the personal experiences of leading figures in government rather than a carefully thought through education strategy.

Years of change have led to a school system which is atomised and incoherent; accountability measures which appear incomprehensible; a monitoring system which is punitive; a crisis in staff recruitment which is intensifying; a curriculum which is increasingly restricted; the recognition of success based almost exclusively upon narrowing academic achievement; and, education provision that favours some groups over others in which, and as always, the children who are the more vulnerable are the most vulnerable.

This situation is now to be made much, much worse by allowing new grammar schools – a suggestion which, at a stroke, reduces the pledge of  ‘one nation’ based upon social justice that ‘works for everyone’ to rubble. We are told more grammar schools will ‘turbo charge social mobility’, – a sound bite as vacuous as ‘drain the swamp’, ‘take back control’ or ‘build a wall’.

At a time of cuts across the public sector, including education, millions have just been allocated to this policy despite the fact  that it was still being consulted on. This  consultation was so rigged with the use of leading questions and misleading statistics (it was actually criticised by The UK Statistics Authority) it would embarrass  ‘The Ministry of Truth’.

It is true that grammar schools get good academic outcomes but that is because they select those children at age 11 who are going to get good academic outcomes. Grammar schools do well not because of what they do but because of who they get.  Good intentions will not prevent, and no amount of spin will disguise, the reality that grammar schools will not admit proportionate numbers of children with free school meals, Special Education Needs, English as an Additional Language or from families that are ‘just about managing’.

Grammar schools will not turbo charge social mobility, they will reinforce social division.  Grammar schools are, to quote a phrase, ‘ stuffed full of middle class kids’ and we should also recognise the uncomfortable whiff of social snobbery coming from some champions of selection. The cottage industry of fee paying private crammer schools and private tutoring evidences the fact that parental affluence is, and I suggest will always be, a significant determinant of access to grammar school aged 11.

As long as education is a competition between schools in which schools are judged only by academic outcomes, the success of the few will be built upon the failure of the many. If insanity is, as Einstein opined, repeating the same things and expecting a different outcome then this policy is lunacy. Why does anyone think that recreating a model which was not fit for purpose in the mid-20th century will prepare our children, and our country, for the mid-21st?

For every new grammar school created there will be three secondary moderns. It is patent nonsense to suggest that the country will create ‘schools that work for everyone’ by restoring a model of educational apartheid in which the minority of schools will take the majority of the academically able and be deemed to succeed, whilst the majority of schools will be denied them and be destined to fail.


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