New Education Secretary Damian Hinds confirmed this month that he will encourage grammar schools to expand, saying that “when it is possible for them to expand, physically, I want them to be able to expand.” It is widely believed that Hinds was appointed because of his support for traditional Conservative education policies such as the expansion of grammar schools., Whether this policy promotes the Department for Education’s commitment to improving social mobility (the Department’s number one priority), has generated much debate in recent months.
There has been a ban on opening new state-funded grammar schools in the UK since 1998. This rule was implemented under Tony Blair’s Labour Government and has received strong cross-party consensus. Evidence conducted by the Education Policy Institute suggested that the children of wealthier families were better prepared for the 11+ exams and therefore grammars resulted in social as well as academic segregation. In 2007, then-Prime Minister David Cameron once said that the debate on grammar schools was “pointless” because “parents fundamentally don’t want their children divided into sheep and goats at the age of 11.” On becoming Education Secretary in July 2016 Hinds’ predecessor, Justine Greening, said that “there will be no return to the simplistic, binary choice of the past, where schools separate children into winners and losers, successes or failures.” When Theresa May became Prime Minister she appointed chief grammar champion, Nick Timothy, as her Chief of Staff, and he openly discussed his personal experience of going to grammar school, believing it had given him access to social mobility he would not otherwise have had. Soon after Mrs May announced that her Government would reintroduce grammar schools, particularly to areas of high deprivation. She said: “The truth is that we already have selection in our school system – and it’s selection by house price, selection by wealth. That is simply unfair.”
Supporters of grammar schools argue that they are vehicles for social mobility as they undermine privilege and are more equitable for those who attend. When announcing that grammar schools would be reintroduced before the 2017’s General Election, Theresa May said: “The truth is that we already have selection in our school system – and it’s selection by house price, selection by wealth. That is simply unfair.” Critics are concerned that this will empower existing grammar schools to have more places, improving elite education in the areas in which they already operate. They argue that middle class families with more money are able to move into the grammar school catchment areas, often having their children privately coached to pass the 11-plus.
It is difficult to see how the expansion of existing grammar schools will improve the postcode scramble that sees estate agents now paying local schools to perform well as they have become one of property’s primary selling points. Converting comprehensive schools into grammars and secondary moderns will not solve the problem of underperforming schools; it will simply concentrate the problem, probably in areas of high deprivation. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers was right when it responded to Mrs May’s announcements saying that the debate is “a massive distraction from the real issues facing our education system.” The answer is not to provide better resources for pupils who perform well at age 11, but to improve poorly performing schools and schools that admit poorly performing students.