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School Bell Or Division Bell - Which Will Ring Loudest?

14/09/2016 12:36

It was all going so....well...it was 'going' in any event. The post-Brexit political meltdown saw senior MPs going to the backbenches in their droves, including David Cameron who has now quit as an MP. The new PM's Machiavellian cabinet reshuffle seemed like a pretty good start, taking into account the rather large poisoned chalice on offer.

Before that, besides advising that Brexit means Brexit, the PM also stated that she would use her position as leader to fight 'burning injustice'. She explained (amongst other things), 'that means fighting against the burning injustice that if you're born poor you will die on average nine years earlier than others' and 'if you're at a state school you're less likely to reach the top professions than if you're educated privately. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives'.

Young Enterprise and many other charities were heartened by the sentiments and the passion behind this statement. But we are now finding it very hard to see how the grammar school initiative squares with these sentiments.

We are not alone. The previous Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan called the initiative 'weird', and Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools, called it 'tosh and nonsense'. Most importantly, in an urgent question in the Commons about the Government's plans for bringing back selective schools, Neil Carmichael, the Stroud MP, who is Chairman of the Education Select Committee, said there was 'no compelling evidence to suggest that grammar schools actually make that much difference to social mobility'.

In announcing and explaining the grammar school move, the PM said: 'Selection already exists in state schools. It's called selection by house price'. But two wrongs never make a right, do they?

All this proposed policy will do is reinforce the disadvantage that takes a strong, vicious hold on children from poorer homes. Social mobility will not be achieved by academic selection, rather it could reinforce social divides. The stop-gap sop of 'some places for poorer children' is not a responsible, credible and sustainable way of addressing this serious and widespread problem. Surely the way to engineer social mobility is not to segregate on academic ability, but to ensure that disadvantaged young people are given the opportunity during their education to develop the crucial soft skills that are the essential complement to academic training. They need the life skills which employers continue to cry out for; skills which help them perform well in interviews, get the right job and be successful in that job. Behaviours, attitudes and the appetite for learning have to start in primary school and even pre-school. Experts know that habit and life chances are formed between the age of 0 and 7.

The PM wants Britain to be a meritocracy and is in favour of greater social mobility. But many are struggling to see how the grammar school initiative will do this. Research shows that any benefits to the privileged few who make it into grammar schools will be outweighed by the negative impact on those who don't make it. The Government's proposals in its Green Paper contain some laudable points such as how to identify and assist children from families who are 'just about managing' rather than focussing merely on the threshold of free school meals, but the heart of the paper is academic selection, with some accompanying unclear and inadequate proposals for how to raise standards in non-selective schools. It seems unlikely that the proposed measures will counter the impact of the them-and-us divide between selective and non-selective schools.

For starters, where there is a grammar school, those who do not attend are instantly, by default, branded 'non-academically gifted'. No matter how we play it, grammar schools create a two-tier system, and label many thousands of children a failure at age 11 (even if they do get the chance to enter the hallowed gates of a selective school aged 14 or 16). How will we tell comprehensive school students that just because you are not academically gifted, it doesn't mean you haven't got the potential to achieve incredible things?

In addition, as some are warning, reigniting the grammar school project could also reignite a severe case of sink-school, secondary-modern syndrome. It will be sink or swim for those 'poor' sink-school students, unless something is done to mitigate against the proposed brain drain.

To continue with the nautical analogy, if you remove ballast from a ship and the ship's loading is not redistributed, it will list and possibly capsize. Will we see the added ballast of technical and vocational teaching to counter the loss of academic 'talent' from non-selective schools? I sincerely hope so.

As always, the devil will be in the detail and we are still a long way away from seeing that. But for starters, what is a 'tutor proof' test and will it work? A 2014 'tutor proof' 11+ test in Buckinghamshire proved that it didn't work at all, with an actual percentage increase in the number of pupils from independent prep schools going to grammar schools.

I also have a problem with the process - or rather lack of process - around this major, non-mandated policy shift. Why the rush and why the break with the established 20 year moratorium on the 163 existing grammar schools? This is a fundamental shift in education policy but it has been proposed barely two months into the new Government's term. Is there some new evidence to support it or is it politically driven?

Regrettably, it appears that the PM is taking politics into the playground, sounding the division bell instead of the school bell. It is always dangerous when educational change becomes a political game or bargaining chip. Why? Because if the bet is lost, millions of young people's life chances will suffer.

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