The return to selection: Three key points

Written by: Tom Middlehurst | Published:
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The consultation over the grammar schools issue has been shown to be a complete travesty. Tom Middlehurst raises three key points when it comes to the government's plans for 140 new, potentially selective, free schools

Last week, the Spring Budget confirmed that £320 million is to be allocated for 140 new free schools – some of which are anticipated to be new selective schools.

Before the Budget was unveiled, the prime minister wrote: “… our Schools White Paper, which will be published in the coming weeks, will take this expansion further by asking universities and private schools to do more to provide new good school places, including by sponsoring new free schools.

“It will remove the barriers that prevent more good faith-based free schools from opening, and it will enable the creation of new selective free schools so that the most academically gifted children get the specialist support to fulfil their potential regardless of their family income or background.”

There are three principle points that need to be raised in relation to this policy announcement.

Funding

It has been widely reported that school budgets are at breaking points, with many schools running deficit budgets, restructuring staffing, making redundancies and considering shorter school weeks. It is therefore no surprise that a commitment to spend £320 million on new schools has been met with both scorn and anger by existing school leaders.

However, the simple fact is that more school places are needed over the next five years, with a current “bulge” in primary schools which will feed up to secondaries in due course.

As Toby Young, CEO of the New Schools Network has pointed out, a vast majority of free schools are currently built in areas of basic pupil need, rather than in areas where there is a competition for places (although there are, of course, exceptions to this).

Thus, while it’s an understandable reaction to say this funding should be used instead to fund existing schools, not funding new school places now will only delay the problem and create even greater school-places shortages down the line.

Instead, we need to continue to argue that schools desperately need an injection of cash in the short term, and agree minimum per-pupil funding in the new formula; while also recognising the need to create more school places.

Admissions

The SSAT responded to the government’s Green Paper consultation firmly opposing increased selection and the removal of the current 50 per cent cap on faith-based admissions for new schools.

The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that selective admissions do not promote social mobility and damage the educational outcomes of other schools in the area.

The Education Policy Institute’s recent report using data from the national pupil database found:

  1. Once prior attainment and pupil background is taken into consideration, there is no overall attainment impact of grammar schools, either positive or negative.
  2. Pupils who are eligible for free school meals (FSM) are under-represented in grammar schools. Only 2.5 per cent of grammar school pupils are entitled to FSM, compared with an average of 13.2 per cent in all state-funded secondary schools.
  3. There is no significant positive impact on social mobility. The gap between children on FSM (attaining five A* to C GCSEs, including English and maths) and all others is actually wider in selective areas than in non-selective areas – 34.1 per cent compared with 27.8 per cent.
  4. An expansion of grammar schools in areas which already have a large number of selective schools could lead to lower gains for grammar school pupils and small attainment losses for those not attending selective schools – losses which will be greatest among poor children.
  5. If you compare high-attaining pupils in grammar schools with similar pupils who attend high-quality non-selective schools, there are five times as many high-quality non-selective schools as there are grammar schools.
  6. Other interventions to raise school standards and attainment have proven to be more effective than grammar schools in raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. The sponsored academies programme has had a more positive impact on the attainment of disadvantaged pupils compared with the present grammar school system.

Moreover, at SSAT we broadly support this government’s belief that all young people deserve a broad and balanced curriculum. Increased selection puts this universal entitlement at risk.

Lack of true consultation

Without wanting to play down the two points above, arguably the biggest scandal about this announcement is the complete disregard for the profession’s views; the consultation being shown as a complete travesty.

With three weeks to go before the end of the consultation period in December, the chancellor confirmed that money would be put aside for grammars in the Autumn Statement. And now, despite the response to the consultation not yet published, we are told that a White Paper is imminent and that this will pave the way for legislation removing the ban on new grammars.

I simply cannot believe that the public and profession’s responses to the Green Paper were favourable to the government’s proposed policy. Indeed, education secretary Justine Greening remarked that the response was not “an overwhelming flood of negativity”. I think her words say rather a lot.

For an education secretary, ministerial team and civil service who claim to want to listen to the profession and work with them, this is an outrage. The hours that colleagues spent gathering evidence and writing their responses have been entirely wasted; their views dismissed.

For minsters to claim they want an evidence-informed profession and want to have dialogue with teachers, this is not just laughable, but shocking. The Green Paper consultation has been shown to be a complete charade – and will undermine any future efforts to elicit opinion and expertise.

The biggest scandal is arguably this government’s demonstration that they can completely dismiss the views of thousands of professions, even when those views have been actively sought, without revealing the results of the consultation. But then maybe that’s what democracy has come to in 2017.

  • Tom Middlehurst is head of policy and public affairs with the SSAT – Schools, Students and Teachers Network. Visit www.ssatuk.co.uk


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