Grammar Schools - A Difficult Choice

15/09/2016 11:12 BST | Updated 15/09/2017 10:12 BST

The saddest thing about Mrs May's proposal to remove the ban on the creation of selective schools was the speed of the reaction to it. Perhaps inevitably, for much of the initial reaction was Pavlovian. "For or against grammar schools, it's a question of principle". The government's ideas, as set out in "Schools that work for everyone", deserve more consideration than that. Hopefully everyone will now begin to master their instinctive hysteria and to think about what is a very difficult issue.

At its heart the questions go to subsidy. Those who wrote the paper are clearly keen on that because, before getting to the question of selective education, they discuss how the private sector (in return for charitable status) and the universities (in return for the right to charge fees over £6000 a year) should make a contribution to the state education system. A lot of the ideas - sponsoring new free schools, offering more bursaries, lending teachers, sharing facilities etc - are already being tried, and the proposals, essentially to apply them more broadly, are unlikely to be very contentious.

More difficult, however, is the question of whether (and how) bright, state-educated children should subsidise their less able counterparts. Is it right to stop the brightest being sent to the selective schools which would give them the best opportunity to exploit their ability, in order to improve the schools to which those who are not quite as gifted are sent?

Of course, there are some assumptions behind all this. It is not necessarily the case that the brightest always do better at selective schools. There are some excellent comprehensives and the statistics are a little inconclusive. Yes, 97% of pupils in selective schools gain five or more GCSEs at grade C or above, against 56.7% of pupils at comprehensives, but that could be simply because the selected students are on average cleverer. Estimates of the improvement which attendance at a selective school makes to grades vary between nothing and three quarters of a grade per subject. Interestingly, one study suggests that the benefit of selective education is particularly high for the poorest students (those on free school meals), something which sounds intuitively right.

One would like to think that we will see figures like this analysed more carefully in the course of the consultation, and perhaps we shall. Still, there is a demand for selective schools which would make no sense if the public did not believe that they delivered something, and the universities seem to think that the standard of their state-educated applicants has declined with the move to comprehensives. Both are probably right.

If that is so, then the opposition to the creation of selective schools is damaging the potential of the brightest children. To be acceptable, that is something which needs to be justified by a corresponding gain elsewhere. The opponents of selective education clear this hurdle by looking at the other schools in areas with selected schools and arguing that they lose out because the selective schools cream off the talent both amongst the pupils and, no doubt, the teachers too. Keep the children together and those who would not be selected will do better.

That is a subsidy which goes far beyond anything being required from the private sector. Is it really necessary or could the standard of the non-selective schools be maintained in some other way? It is here that the consultation paper struggles a little with suggestions of partnering selective and non-selective schools and cooperation between the two types. Useful though these things may be, they only go part of the way. There will always be a tendency to give preference to the selective school over its non-selective counterpart. A local engineering firm, for example, is likely to see more benefit in a link to the former than to the latter. Ex-pupils of the selective school will be more likely to succeed and make contributions to the alma mater. The real question here is what measures can be taken to ensure that the non-selective schools in the selective areas get a fair crack of the whip .

The debate will not be about that of course. Politicians will chunter on about the 11+ and the risk of binning the less able children before their careers have even started. That can probably be dealt with by flexibility of movement between the two systems, and indeed the proposals quite rightly suggest that there should be opportunities to join the selective system at fourteen and sixteen as well as at eleven. That will probably not be as easy as switching streams at a comprehensive school, but it should take some of the heat out of this particular argument.

In the end, though, it is not about that. It is about two questions, one of broad approach and one highly practical. The first is whether it is acceptable to hold back the brightest children to assist the less bright. That is put as a moral issue but it also has a practical dimension. We are about to leave the EU and will need to mobilise every bit of our national talent if we are to thrive in a new world. Can we afford to settle for a lower contribution from our brightest and best?

The second question arises if the answer the first is "no". How can we avoid the disadvantage to the less able if we move towards more selective schools? The two questions are, of course, inextricably intertwined and the answers to this one may give us the answer to the other. That answer does not, however, spring convincingly from the pages of the consultation document.

The consultation ends on 12 December so there is a little time, but if this is going to be got right we had all better skip the political posturing and start worrying about the practicalities and whether they are dealt with successfully or unsuccessfully in those areas where grammar schools still survive.

First published in the Shaw Sheet - see link