Grammar expansion: An elitist policy...

Written by: Nick Brook | Published:
Nick Brook, deputy general secretary, NAHT

The £50m a year for grammar school expansion should be made available to all children, not just the lucky few, says Nick Brook

The other day I was invited onto a radio phone-in to talk about grammar schools.

“What’s your problem?” the host asked, “I went to grammar school and it worked for me.”

And there, the fundamental problem of this policy was laid bare. The proposed expansion of grammar schools is not an initiative based in evidence. It is an initiative driven by the prime minister on the basis of “it worked for me, so let’s do it for everyone”. In research terms, that’s a sample size of one. Hardly scientific.

Without question, overall grammar schools provide a good standard of education for those lucky enough to attend them: 97 per cent of pupils attending grammars achieve good GCSE results. Taken on its own, these figures are impressive. However, dig a little deeper and research has shown that this high performance is driven by the very high prior attainment of pupils and the demographics of their families. Put simply, bright children from reasonably well-off families tend to do very well at school, whatever type of school they go to. It’s not such a revelation.

What should be more concerning to those that run the country is that evidence suggests that selective education actually widens the achievement gap between poor pupils and their more affluent peers. Nationally, around 13 per cent of pupils are eligible for the Pupil Premium, yet across the existing 163 grammar schools, only 2.5 per cent of pupils are eligible.
In areas of the country where there is a high proportion of selective schools, the gap in attainment between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged is greatest (on average, a 34 per cent attainment gap compared to 28 per cent nationally). At a local level, selection appears to be lowering standards.

The worrying thing is, the government isn’t really sure what is behind this apparent “grammar school effect”, and why selection has such a detrimental impact on children around them. It could be that creaming off the best pupils hampers other schools’ efforts to “teach to the top”. It could be that in a competitive labour market, those most in demand are more attracted to teaching in selective schools.

The simple truth is that the government does not know. We think they should find out first before potentially making a bad situation even worse.

This is the wrong time to be earmarking an additional £50 million a year for grammar school expansion. School budgets are at breaking point. The state-funded school system is rapidly heading towards insolvency. To pursue such an elitist policy as expanding grammars at a time of crisis is a distraction at best.

The government’s own figures show that an extra 654,000 school places will be needed in England by 2026, to meet a nine per cent rise in pupil population.

The government’s rationale for expanding grammar schools is to create more good school places. But handing £50 million to only 163 of the 3,228 secondary schools in England will create just a tiny fraction of what’s required.

If each of the 163 grammar schools was to get an equal share of this annual pot, they’d get roughly £300,000.

We asked a few of our secondary council members in non-selective schools to tell us what £300,000 would do for their school.

One said that they could commission an additional 400 hours per week of specialist support to alleviate the dire situation faced by schools to meet the requirements of SEN and High Needs pupils.

Another secondary head said that the money could provide adequate mental health support for the one in 10 pupils requiring it and create the capacity for a Mental Health Champion (as set out in the recent Mental Health Green Paper). Currently, money has only been allocated to train such a person but without any form of funding the actual post.

Other members talked about commissioning specialist and costly speech and language therapy, providing an appropriate level of support for those gifted and talented students whose needs are very hard to meet in the current financial climate. Or independent and high-quality careers advice and work-related learning as set out in the January 2018 Careers Strategy and in the Gatsby Foundation benchmarks. Funding is also needed to appoint a designated careers coordinator in every school, also a statutory requirement of the strategy.

Another example comes from one of NAHT’s secondary members: “0.5% of that figure would pay off my deficit in year one. In year 2 I would not have to have classes of 30 in key stage 3 and I could run smaller A levels such as MFL, further maths, politics and PE, and GCSEs such as drama, food tech, computing and RE.

“It would mean I can get the school cleaned more often and maintain the school playing fields making them usable for fixtures. I could afford a counsellor one day a week.

“I could refresh my IT stock in one class a year. I could afford to re-employ my pastoral staff that are the first line in the students mental first aid and play a huge roll in safeguarding. I could also keep my community bus going.

“I would be able to give staff an additional hour of non-contact time and reduce their workload.”

We had plenty more replies. We’ll be sending them all to the Department for Education, just so they are in no doubt about the opportunities that they are denying the vast majority of young people in order to fund expansion at a tiny percentage of schools.

This money should be spent for the benefit of all children, not just the tiny number who attend grammar schools.

Funds like this would have much more impact on opportunities for disadvantaged young people if they were targeted either in the early years or at schools which, at present, they typically attend.

The government cannot point to a single piece of evidence that shows a strong educational benefit of expanding selection at 11. And yet there’s a wealth of evidence that points to better ways to spend the money. At NAHT we’ll continue to try to throw some light on this. There’s no need for the government to send us back to the dark ages in this way.

  • Nick Brook is the deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.


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