Just say no to more grammars

If I were Michael Gove, the decision I would least relish at the moment would be having to rule on the fate of the Sevenoaks grammar school. This little time bomb was lobbed into the Secretary of State’s court around 18 months ago when the county council in fully selective Kent decided to approve the establishment of a “satellite” grammar school in the town.

New grammar schools have been outlawed for decades, but selection still continues in over 25 local authority areas. After the 2010 election the coalition government announced its intention to allow all schools, including the remaining grammars, more freedom to expand.

It didn’t take long for a group of campaigners in Sevenoaks, one of the few towns in Kent without its own grammar school, to test the full meaning of this.  A petition was launched calling for this “satellite” to be established – in effect an annex of another selective school in the county. The council swiftly agreed to fund the project.

A site has been found, although part of it is now occupied by a new faith free school. There is also a non-selective academy with a “grammar stream” in Sevenoaks. But neither of these satisfy the campaigners who claim their children are stressed by having to travel up to 25 miles a day to selective schools further afield.

Two girls’ grammars, one of which is 20 miles away, have come forward as potential “parent” schools. But this is where the Secretary of State’s difficulties, both legal and political, arise. Both these schools are now academy converters, so part of his growing empire. In spite of loosening school capacity regulations, he still needs to agree to such an expansion and also to decide which school should be granted it. But the 2010 Academies Act also prohibits him from entering into any “academy arrangements” that might have the effect of establishing a new selective school.

So the killer question is whether this “satellite” is a new school or not. A precise legal definition of a satellite or school annex doesn’t exist. The government could just create its own, but it is hard to see how a six form entry co-educational institution with its own site, day-to-day leadership and miles away from the sponsor school (which would still be single sex) could be seen as anything other than a stand alone school.

Moreover if it were genuinely to be an annex of either “parent “ school, it should share their admissions criteria, which in both cases include a distance tie-break that might in practice shut out the Sevenoaks children. If the satellite school were to have its own admissions criteria, this would simply reinforce the idea of it as a separate institution.

A recent FOI request requesting Kent County Council’s legal advice on the matter was rejected, on the grounds that the local authority didn’t want to expose the finely balanced arguments to potential legal challengers. But the bigger headache for Gove must surely be political. If he agrees the plan and sees off a judicial review, he will effectively establish the first new grammar school in England for nearly half a century.  But the floodgates would then be open for similar schemes around the country.

Many in the Tory party, possibly even the Secretary of State himself, might relish this legacy. Shortly after taking office he admitted that that his foot was “hovering over the pedal” when it came to bringing in more grammar schools. But how would this radical shift sit with the coalition’s rhetoric about narrowing gaps and closing the class divide in education?

New evidence about the socially exclusive nature of selective education appears on a weekly basis. Grammar schools have far fewer poor children than their neighbours; they are fuelled by an exorbitant private tuition industry; the “tutor proof” test  has been as widely rubbished as the claim that grammars ever benefitted significant numbers of really poor children.

Moreover the key argument for selection – that intelligence is fixed – has been comprehensively disproved by scientific evidence showing that teenagers’ brains change. Judging potential on the basis of a single test at 10 or 11 is absurd. Last week’s PISA research, so prized by Gove, suggested again that the most successful education systems  don’t divide children in this way.

This is a time bomb with unusually explosive properties. If he has got any sense Michael Gove will take his foot of the pedal and just say no.

This article first appeared in the Guardian in December 2013. Shortly afterwards the Secretary of State announced that he couldn’t authorise the expansion of either of these two grammar schools in to Sevenoaks. See the story on the BBC here.

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