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Grammar Schools A Distraction From Solving The Crises In Education

07/10/2016 15:02
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In her first words to the country as Prime Minister, Theresa May said that she wants a country that works for everyone.

Her first policy announcement on education, proposals to remove barriers to selection of pupils by ability, came then as something of a surprise, given this previous commitment to supporting greater equality and equity for all.

Selection, whether by aptitude or by religion or gender is a long-standing feature of our education system. However, there is strong evidence that countries which operate selective systems of education perform less well overall and have a wider attainment gap between well off and disadvantaged students.

At a time when the Brexit vote indicates that the nation is deeply divided and the gap between the richest and poorest in our society is widening, the role of our education system in helping to bring people together and sweep away divisions has never been more needed.

The Prime Minister's proposals are in reality a distraction from the urgent action needed to tackle the real issues and challenges in our education system.

We are experiencing a teacher recruitment and retention crisis. While the Department for Education may seek to play the scale of this down, even MPs on the Public Accounts Committee have highlighted that the Government has no plan to meet its failure to recruit sufficient teachers.

Successive years of real-terms cuts to the education budget and the decimation of the role of local authorities through a combination of austerity measures and the drive to towards increased autonomy for schools, particularly academy chains and free schools, have resulted in a huge reduction in resources and support for schools.

Reforms to the curriculum and accountability system have led to pressure on schools to focus on a narrower range of academic subjects, increasingly denying pupils the opportunity to develop their skills in arts and creative subjects such as sport, art, music and drama.

The removal of a swathe of vocational qualifications from league table eligibility, along with savage cuts to further education funding, has undermined young people's ability to pursue a skills-based path and limited their life chances.

Claims that the opening up of academic selection will increase social mobility and raise the attainment of children from poorer backgrounds are not borne out by evidence and only serve further to distract from focusing on how to repair the damage the education, social and economic policies of the last six years have done to the most vulnerable in our society.

The government's priority should not be more structural change for schools, but fundamental changes to its social and economic policies which have fuelled the growth of insecure and poorly paid work through the flourishing of zero hours contracts, reduced workers' rights, created a climate in which discrimination has increased and which has resulted in increasing levels of child poverty and deprivation.

It is these policies which cause social exclusion, blight the lives of too many families and their children and inhibit social mobility.

Extending selection risks extending privilege. The focus must be on ensuring that all pupils can benefit from access to a broad-based balanced national curriculum which offers a variety of high-quality vocational and academic pathways which, crucially, all have parity of esteem with employers, higher education providers and the public.

A cornerstone of such an approach must be an entitlement to world-class careers advice and guidance for every child, yet another service decimated by government cuts and reforms.

Creating a system of genuine educational opportunity for all must be the aim, but this cannot be achieved without first addressing the societal and economic factors which are creating the disadvantage that is an everyday fact of life for too many of our children and young people.

Righting the wrongs of the last six years of government would be the biggest contribution the Prime Minister could make to improve the life chances of our children and young people.

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