Education Apr 2 2012

Labour should subvert the Tory academy programme to end selection

A shorter version of this article appears in the Guardian today

I am sure I wasn’t alone in feeling a profound sense of gloom on hearing that the go-ahead has been given for what will effectively be a new grammar school in the Kent town of Sevenoaks.

For the last fifteen years too many people, including most of Labour‘s front bench, have relaxed into a sense of complacency about the continued existence of selection in a quarter of English local authorities. Legislation prohibiting new grammar schools lulled a generation of politicians into believing that the remaining 164 grammars could be ignored.
That smugness has been blown apart by the Coalition’s devious use of the school admissions code – ironically a measure introduced by Labour to bring more fairness to the admissions system – to allow popular schools to expand without constraint or consultation. Not surprisingly plans for annexes to existing grammar schools quickly surfaced and there is little to stop these ‘satellites’ popping all over the country, even in neighbouring non-selective authorities.
Observers at the meeting of predominantly Tory Kent County Council described members as being  “cockahoop.” when near unanimous approval was given to the Sevenoaks plan. The belief in an elite education system runs like a deep blue vein through the Conservative party. Within months of the coalition government taking power, Education Secretary Michael Gove was joking about his “foot hovering over the pedal” when it came to more selective education.

And he quickly found a way to do it by stealth. This sneaky last minute change to the admissions code, made after consultation on the latest version had closed, shows just how superficial David Cameron’s Tory modernisation really is. For all the talk of inclusion, narrowing gaps and prioritising poor children, his administration has unleashed a change that, as his own universities minister David Willetts bravely explained in 2007, will inevitably entrench advantage.

The idea that grammar schools provide ladders for poor children has always rested more on the anecdotal life stories of a few prominent public figures than on hard facts. In 1959 at the height of the so called ‘golden age’ of selective education only 9 % of 16 years achieved 5 or more O levels  and  38% of grammar school pupils failed to achieve more than 3 O levels. Today around 70% pass five good GCSEs. The Crowther Report in the same year discovered poor children were significantly under represented in selective schools.

Little has changed. A  thriving private tuition industry now prices poorer children out of this  schools “market” and  grammar schools  have on average around 1%-2% pupils eligible for free school meals.

Moreover the key argument for selection – that IQ is fixed – has been comprehensively disproved by scientific evidence showing that teenager’s brains change.  Judging potential on the basis of a single test at 10 or 11 is absurd. The OECD PISA study, so prized by the current Education Secretary, also shows conclusively that the most successful education systems in the world have no streaming at all before the age of 16.

That we are now facing expansion of a system that all the international evidence proves is neither equitable nor effective is partly down to Labour’s failure to tackle this issue while in office and sitting on the fence should no longer be an option.  Labour should play the Tories at their own game. Just as the Tories have subverted Labour’s admission code, Labour could subvert the Tory’s academy conversion programme.

Almost three quarters of grammar schools have already converted to academy status, which means they are wholly dependent for their existence on funding agreements with the Secretary of State.  A future Labour government should cease funding any selective academies unless they proceed with an orderly seven year plan – the lifetime of any pupil – to phase out use of the 11+ and convert to a comprehensive intake.

Selective education was largely abolished because angry middle class parents were incensed that their children were being stamped as failures at 11 and forced into secondary moderns starved of the balanced intakes all schools need to perform well. The flip side of the Kent grammars is a disproportionately high number of schools performing below the government’s floor targets. There isn’t an appetite for this sort of system to be reintroduced elsewhere and Labour should act decisively now on the back of the Kent decision, oppose this policy and mark out a new progressive course for the future.

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