While no official plans have been announced, talk of Prime Minister Theresa May potentially lifting the ban on opening new grammar schools has dominated the headlines in recent weeks. Education Business’ Tommy Newell examines the latest updates and the potential impact on the education sector.
The media whirlwind began when newly appointed Education Secretary Justine Greening said the government should be ‘open minded’ about the opening of new grammar schools - state funded schools that select pupils based on an examination at age 11.
Greening was appointed as the Education Secretary as part of May’s swift Cabinet reshuffle, following her appointment as Prime Minister. Greening was a notable choice, as she was immediately branded the first Education Secretary to go to a comprehensive school - a somewhat shocking realisation given the large proportion of the British public educated in non-selective state schools.
While there is some question as to whether the label is justified, with former Education Secretaries David Blunkett and Estelle Morris posing some problems, Greening’s position on grammars may may have come as a surprise to many given her educational background.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Greening emphasised that the education landscape had ‘changed ‘dramatically’ over the last few years and that the government should be ‘prepared to be open-minded’.
She added: “I think that the education debate on grammar schools has been going for a very long time, but I also recognise that the landscape in which it takes place has changed fundamentally.
"I think we need to be able to move this debate on and look at things as they are today, and maybe step away from a more old-fashioned debate around grammar schools and work out where they fit in today's landscape."
While grammars used to make up a larger proportion of schools across England, the Labour government introduced a law in 1998 that banned the opening of new grammar schools. Grammar schools do still exist, and are prominent in areas such as Kent, but there numbers are diminished with 163 currently operating in the country.
Following from Greening’s comments, the Telegraph published an article claiming that ‘100 Tory MPs back scrapping the ban on new grammar schools’, adding further fuel to the fire. While Greening’s support for grammar schools may have come as a surprise, the idea of May’s government orchestrating the move may not come as so much of a shock.
Under Cameron, the Conservative’s formal position was always against lifting the ban, but there remained strong support among the Tory back benchers and grass roots. May’s reshuffle has brought some of these prominent grammar proponents onto the front benches in the form of Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox and Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis.
Possibly more notable than the appointments of Fox and Davis is the role of Nick Timothy, former head of the New Schools Network. Timothy is a close aide of May and has been appointed as her joint chief of staff. He is a vocal proponent of the grammar system and a former pupil of a grammar school himself. He has called for grammar to be reintroduced in the past and criticised the ban as denying parents the right to choose the most appropriate education for their children.
An official announcement is yet to be made, but the Telegraph published another article at the beginning of August that claimed May was ‘planning to launch a new generation of grammar schools by scrapping the the ban on them imposed almost 20 years ago’. The article claimed that the policy would be announced before the end of the year, possibly as early as the Conservatives’ annual party conference in October, and the government’s silence following the article has led many to speculate that the plans are indeed true.
Cross party opposition
Despite the government being quiet on the matter, the media coverage has led many politicians and experts to voice stern opposition to the idea. One of the first high profile politicians to speak out was Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, who said that his party would work to block any attempts to open new grammars.
Speaking to the Guardian, Farron said: “The Liberal Democrats are the party of education, and that means we believe in an excellent education for all, so any plans to bring in more divisive grammar schools will be utterly opposed by my party.
“Those who hold up grammar schools as the gold standard are less keen to talk about what happens to those children who, at the age of 11, are told they are not good enough. What does that do to a young person’s confidence and self esteem?
“This rose-tinted view of grammar schools might play well for a nostalgic few on the right of the Tory party but make no mistake about it – they are not the drivers of social mobility they would like to claim.”
As many would expect, Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson has also come forward to say that the party would oppose a move, with leadership contender Owen Smith promising to ‘fight tooth and nail’ against any plans to lift them.
More interestingly, Neil Carmichael, Conservative MP and chair of the Education Select Committee, has also voiced opposition to the idea.
Speaking to Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, Carmichael said: “We have serious issues about social mobility, in particular white working-class young people, and I don’t think that having more grammar schools is going to help them.
“I think that the creaming off of the best is actually detrimental to the interests of the most.”
The issue of social mobility is what appears to be at the heart of the debate, with supporters saying it is good for social mobility as it give the most gifted better chances through a better education, and the detractors warning it leaves behind those that don’t pass the entrance test, who are disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Research conducted by the Sutton Trust in 2013 found that in selective areas on average 18 per cent of pupils are entitled to free school meals - an important indicator of social deprivation - but make up only three per cent of grammar school entrants, which would appear to support the claim that grammar schools can act as a barrier to social mobility for disadvantaged pupils.
The same analysis also found that pupils from poorer backgrounds who performed just as well as their more well off peers were still less likely to attend grammars, with 66 per cent of children who achieve level five in both English and Maths at Key Stage 2 who are not eligible for free school meals going to a grammar school compared with 40 per cent of similarly high achieving children who are eligible for free school meals.
Kent is the largest council in the UK to retain a mainly selective school system, with 25 per cent of secondary school age pupils attending one of the 33 grammar schools in the area. The grammar schools in the area have faced criticism for their intake of poorer pupils, with just 2.8 per cent of grammar school pupils receiving free school meals, compared to 13.4 per cent in comprehensives.
The figures have been branded as ‘appallingly low’ by Liberal Democrat councillor Martin Vye and led to an inquiry into social mobility within the county’s grammar schools.
It is not just grammar’s effect on social mobility that has been brought into question following the Telegraph’s report. John Howson, recruitment expert and honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford, described grammar schools as ‘a product of the nineteenth century that lingered overlong into the twentieth and have no place in the modern world’ and said that to introduce new grammar schools without a comprehensive education plan would be ‘unbelievably short-sighted’.
In a blog post he cautioned that the plans could work to further compound the teacher recruitment crisis, writing: “For existing secondary school teachers, the question is simple: if your school were to lose 30 per cent of its most able pupils, would you continue to teach here?
“For potential teachers the question is: would you be willing to teach in a school where 30 per cent of the age range didn’t attend?
“For primary school teachers, the question has to be whether they would prepare children for the selection process?
“Making a teacher supply crisis worse won’t help the education of those not selected form a grammar school place.”
A YouGov poll found that only 38 per cent of people believe the government should build more grammar schools and encourage more schools to select on academic ability, which suggests there isn’t a huge amount of public support for the idea.
However, responses were mixed when it came to grammar’s effect on social mobility: 35 per cent held the view that grammars improve social mobility, while 19 per cent thought they damaged social mobility and a further 27 per cent believed they made no difference at all (20 per cent of respondents said they didn’t know).
The results also found that when it came to the more personal choice of which school people would choose to send their own children to, grammars appeared much more popular, with 67 per cent of respondents saying they would send their child to a grammar school if they had passed an entrance exam, compared to just 10 per cent saying they would not.
It also found that grammar schools were overwhelmingly favoured by those who attended them, with 61 per cent wanting the government to build more, compared to 17 per cent who want them all scrapped.
Will the ban be lifted?
It remains to be seen if the ban will be lifted, or if the supposed plans will even be announced, as so far no official confirmation has come from Downing Street or the Department for Education.
It is clear there is support among some top ranking members of the Conservative government, but it is possible that May could tread lightly with these plans.
May used her maiden speech to focus on the issue of social mobility and running a government that ‘works for everyone’. While it is likely the potential re-introduction of new grammars into the education landscape will be promoted as a tool to achieve these aims, fierce opposition from Labour and the Liberal Democrats will likely question grammars’ viability to deliver such aims.
The new Prime Minister is still in the early stages of her premiership and will likely not wish to risk losing a vote on a major policy such as this, especially given the pressures of the negotiating leaving the European Union and triggering Article 50 looming over her head.
A prominent figure in the Conservative party such as Neil Carmichael voicing opposition to the plans before they have even been announced suggests that there could be some resistance from within May’s own party and while the Telegraph reported that over 100 Conservative MPs supported lifting the ban, it will take a lot more than 100 votes to pass the proposed plans.
It is also important to consider that the Conservatives hold a slim majority in the House of Commons and are very unlikely to gain support from the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats, meaning they will need the backing of the vast majority of the party to have any success.
Additionally, despite only occupying eight seats in the Commons, Tim Farron told the Guardian he was confident that the Liberal Democrat’s 106 peers would be able to generate enough support from Labour and cross bench peers to cause problems for the Conservatives in the House of Lords, where they do not enjoy a majority.
If the plans are announced before the end of the year, May will likely face a stiff test to pass such a major policy, which will undoubtably have major implications for England’s education landscape.