A grimmer school for every town

By John Freeman

| 08 March 2017

There have been the predictable - and justifiable - howls of protest about the proposed ending of the ban on new grammar schools and the associated capital funding allocation of hundreds of millions of pounds.

The protests, as published in the media, have largely focused on the practicalities - building unnecessary schools where there is already a surplus of school places is just a waste of public money, and will financially destabilise existing schools, the last thing that is needed at a time of cuts to school budgets.

It is, of course, deeply, deeply unhelpful to the education system to waste resources in this way.

But the real argument against grammar schools is that they just don't work to improve overall educational outcomes and social mobility, for some simple and straightforward reasons.

First, whatever happens in a selective system, some children will be selected ‘in' and others will be selected ‘out' - that's what it says on the tin. And those selected ‘out' will feel, and be, excluded from success. While it is possible that children in the grammar schools will benefit, the children in the other schools will be disadvantaged. That's the universal experience of the selective system to date, and the underlying reason why Margaret Thatcher opened so many comprehensive schools - there was a vocal groundswell of annoyance every year from all those parents, the large majority, whose children did not pass the 11+.

Second, whatever the Prime Minister thinks, all tests are vulnerable to coaching, and coaching is a means of securing entry for parents who can pay - so the new grammar schools will inevitably be selecting on middle-class-ness. The existing multi-million-pound coaching industry will be smacking its collective lips. Not, I fear, a recipe for social mobility.

Third, and most important, there is simple human biology - children and their brains are not mature at age 11, and continue to develop. Some children are slow developers, others don't fulfil their early promise - and in any event "academic ability" is not a single, simple attribute that can be measured in any sort of reliable way.

Even the Sentencing Council has now accepted that children and young people's behaviour is affected by their upbringing, and that they can "grow out of" criminal activity. It is perverse to think that children's abilities are set in stone at age 11.

I'm giving Justine Greening, as a comprehensively-educated Secretary of State, the benefit of the doubt here - I'm pretty certain that grammar schools are not her idea, and that she has been leant on by the Prime Minister - who is of course a grammar school alumnus.

It is a very great pity that the Prime Minister is demonstrating all the worst characteristics of politicians - she thinks she knows how schools and education work for everyone because she had a successful experience herself.

John Freeman CBE
Alumnus of Saffron Walden Technical and Modern School (1961-63) which then became Saffron Walden County High School (1963-69)

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