OK, I admit it: I went to a grammar school. A fact I'd never really thought about until recently. But Theresa May's announcement that the government is expanding selective schools has made me examine my thoughts on the subject. Has it benefited me in any way? Was I just lucky to have parents who were able to successfully navigate a complex system, whereas neighbours' children were apparently less fortunate?
Two events this weekend got me thinking: I started reading 'The Comprehensive School' by Robin Pedley and also went to a session at Cheltenham's Literature Festival called 'Education: Closing the Opportunity Gap'. I've only read the first chapter of Pedley's book from 1963 but what I can't get over is how, over fifty years later, we're still talking about the same issues: the advantages of being born into a literate home; the fact we have a tiered education system; the problems of testing. And how the UK has some of the lowest social mobility in the world (OECD, 2010).
I can't see how expanding grammar schools is going to address any of these problems. Teachers themselves don’t seem to be that keen on the idea – our recent Schoolzone research found 63% of respondents are against the idea of expansion and over half wouldn’t consider working in a grammar. Marva Rollins, a headteacher from London who was on the panel at Sunday's session, spoke passionately about the need for an education system where all children get the best deal possible, rather than one that follows a deficit model: an assumption that grammars are best and children who don't get selected at age 11 are ‘failures’.
I don’t think anyone can question with her vision and, having worked in a number of schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged children, I completely agree with her. These children need extra support and investment to bridge the chasm that exists between them and their peers, and they are wildly underrepresented in grammar schools. Less than three per cent of all pupils going to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, against an average of 18% in other schools in the areas where they are located (Poor grammar, The Sutton Trust, 2013) so expanding grammar isn’t going to do them any good.
Now, parents like selection. However, I wonder whether they are actually fully informed: if they knew that there is ‘no overall attainment impact of grammar schools, either positive or negative’ and that there are ‘five times as many high quality non-selective schools as there are grammar schools’ (Grammar schools and social mobility, EPI, 2016), would they be as keen for their children to avoid the local comprehensive? I'm not convinced I had access to the best teachers at the grammar I went to - I have a strong suspicion that, because we were seen as 'bright' pupils, a lot of the teachers didn't put much time and effort into lessons. I lost count of the number of times I spent a one-hour lesson copying notes from a blackboard onto a piece of paper. Whilst I don't mean to disrespect the teachers (heaven knows there's enough of that about and obviously it wasn’t every single teacher), I do want to challenge the assumption that grammar schools provide access to the best teaching. I simply don't think that's true – there are countless dedicated, excellent teachers in non-selective schools - and I genuinely think I would have gotten similar GCSE and A Level results in whatever school I'd ended up in because I am lucky enough to have very supportive parents and the right work ethic.
So what should we be doing instead? Lee Elliot Major, CEO of The Sutton Trust, suggests random allocation of school places at age 11, and Rollins highlighted the need for greater investment in the early years to close the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers as early as possible. Expanding grammar school places is not the answer to improving our education system.
To end with some personal experience: I have taught Year 6 children from disadvantaged backgrounds who were highly academically able but whose parents didn’t know, or didn’t care, about the grammar system so they went to a local comprehensive instead. Conversely, other children, who took a fair bit longer to grasp new concepts and secure their understanding, had parents who were determined for their child to get into a grammar school and went through the appeals process to achieve this. How is this helpful to any of them? We should be concentrating our efforts on improving teaching in all schools, rather than engaging in debate about an approach that has no research evidence to support it.