Grammar Schools: how they’ll make education policy even more complicated

Primary school children work on problem solving. legenda/Shutterstock

Theresa May’s plans to bring back grammar schools has provoked a storm of controversy – with the downside of grammars now well documented. But on top of these well known negatives, there are other significant grammar school effects that have been relatively overlooked.

One is the impact on previous education policy – and the push for academies. Since 2010, a radical programme to curb the power of local authorities and ensure the system is led by schools has been implemented. This is known as a “school-led-system”, and it aims to spread the practices of outstandingly successful practitioners to less successful schools. It has been vigorously re-endorsed in a recent white paper.

There are two main ways this will be achieved. The first is for all schools to become academies, releasing them from local authority control. These schools will then work in groups of 15 to 30 schools, constituted as “multi-academy trusts”. Multi-academy trusts have a single governing body and are run by a headteacher with an outstanding track record.

The second is to increase the number of Teaching Schools. These are schools with an outstanding Ofsted grade which are tasked with delivering high quality professional development in an area. They invite schools to join their Teaching School Alliance to benefit from their school improvement activities.

Local relations

But this is no easy task, in part because local school relations have always been complex – with a level of latent distrust that makes them difficult to navigate for everyone, especially headteachers. Plus, schools have to compete against each other to attract easier to educate pupils and to recruit the best staff.

On a lot of these issues, the local authority used to act as referee. But the marginalisation of the Local Authority has removed the old way of managing schooling in a local area. And strategic decision making in a school led system now requires substantial collaboration between schools.

There are now several multi-academy trusts and teaching schools in each area – and the trusts are competing for pupils and staff, while teaching schools are competing for schools to join their alliance. This means that they are required to be both competitors and collaborators at the same time.

Schools have to compete against each other to attract the best students. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Despite these difficulties – often as a result of brokering by the weakened Local Authorities – schools have over the last few years fostered enough mutual trust to build new and fragile collaborative structures and relationships. These promise to make strategic decision making possible and provide effective peer to peer school improvement procedures.

But, if implemented, the new selective policy will intensify levels of distrust. Secondary schools will watch each other to see who might break first and the emerging local settlements designed for the good of all children and necessary for the achievement of a “school led system” are likely to be seriously disrupted.

Primary impact

Another major effect of the reintroduction of selection would be the impact on primary schools. When the selective test at 11 was first introduced, the actual age of selection was effectively pushed to a younger age – as children thought capable of passing were separated into a grammar stream and intensively coached.

This inhibited progressive developments in primary education inspired by educational thinkers and practitioners who emphasised the importance and distinctness of education in the early years.

Tested to destruction? Ermolaev Alexander/Shutterstock

These days, testing is again a big part of primary schooling, with critics pointing out how high stakes testing (SATs) and accompanying league tables have caused primary schools to narrow the curriculum, to stream and teach to the test. And the introduction of selection at 11 will do nothing to reduce this effect. If anything, it is more likely to strengthen it.

Contradictory policies

The recent green paper suggests that the proposed selection system is compatible with the present policies for a school led system, but the latter requires a level of mutual trust that the former is likely to undermine.

The implementation of a selective system means that once again those on the ground in local areas will have to make sense of contradictory national policies emerging from what is beginning to look like a permanent revolution in education.

There will be heroic examples where this is made to work and they will be rightly celebrated. But for the majority, while they have been working hard to make things work in the interests of all the children in their area, this policy – if implemented – will make that task much more difficult.

And while the prime minister and her education secretary do not deny the evidence of these and other negative effects of grammar schools, they also assert that they can be avoided – quite how, though, remains yet to be seen.

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