Time for an honest debate about grammar schools

Grammar schools: moving with the times. michaeljung/www.shutterstock.com

With Theresa May as the new prime minister at the helm of the Conservatives, speculation is already mounting about whether her support for a new academically selective grammar school in her own constituency will translate into national educational policy. This will be a big question for her newly appointed secretary of state for education, Justine Greening.

The debate between those who support the reintroduction of grammar schools and those who would like them abolished is a longstanding one with no foreseeable end in sight. In 1998 the Labour prime minister Tony Blair attempted to draw a line under the issue by preventing the creation of any new selective schools while allowing for the maintenance of existing grammar schools in England. Before becoming prime minister, David Cameron dismissed Tory MPs angry at his party’s withdrawal of support for grammar schools by calling the debate “entirely pointless”.

This is an issue that continues to resurface and recently became even more pressing with the government’s decision in October 2015 to allow a school in Tonbridge, Kent, to open up an annexe in Sevenoaks, ten miles away. This decision has led to the very real possibility of existing grammar schools applying for similar expansions. Whether or not more will be given permission to do so in the years ahead, many existing grammar schools are currently expanding their intakes.

This latest resurgence of the debate is playing out in an educational landscape which has been radically reformed since 2010. Old arguments about what type of school the government should favour have little traction or meaning in an education system deliberately set up around the principles of autonomy, diversity and choice. Meanwhile, much of the debate continues to ignore and distort the bodies of evidence on crucial issues such as the effectiveness of selection, fair access and social mobility.

It is against this backdrop that we completed a recent review looking at how reforms to the education system affect the grammar school debate and examined the evidence underpinning arguments on both sides.

Old debates, new system

Grammar schools have been re-positioning themselves within the newly-reformed landscape. Notably, 85% of grammar schools have now become academies – giving them more autonomy. Turning a grammar school into an academy is now literally a tick-box exercise. Adopting a legal status that ostensibly keeps the state at arms-length while granting autonomy over curriculum and admissions policies has had a strong appeal for grammar schools.

New potential roles for grammar schools have also opened up. We are seeing the emergence of new structures and forms of collaboration, such as multi-academy trusts, federations and other partnerships. Supporters argue that grammar schools can play a positive role within these new structures, offering leadership within the system. Notable examples include the King Edward VI foundation in Birmingham which in 2010 took over the poorly-performing Sheldon Heath Community Arts College. There are also current proposals for the foundation to become a multi-academy trust.

Construction of the new annexe for a grammar school in Sevenoaks. Gareth Fuller/PA Archive

The Cameron government’s quasi-market approach to making education policy – and that of New Labour before him – has favoured looser and often overlapping structures that allow for a diversity of provision and responsiveness to demand. The central focus is on standards rather than a state-approved blueprint for all schools. This involves intervention where standards are low and expansion where standards are high and there is demand for places.

This policy approach neither supports nor opposes grammar schools – it tries to sidestep the question entirely, leaving many concerns about fair access and the impact of academic selection unanswered.

Fair access

A disproportionately small number of disadvantaged pupils attend grammar schools. Contrary to the claims of grammar school proponents, the evidence shows that these disparities in intake are not entirely accounted for by the fact that grammar schools are located in more affluent areas nor by their high-attaining intake.

Yet grammar schools (and academies) are in a position to use their control over admissions policies and application procedures to seek more balanced intakes and fairer access should they wish to do so. Whether or not they have the ability or inclination remains to be seen.

The issue of school admissions is a good example of where the public debate has failed to keep pace with the realities of the system. Previous research by the Sutton Trust found that some of the most socially selective schools in the country are comprehensive schools, at least in name.

Pitting comprehensive schools against grammar schools, therefore, only loosely grasps the issue of social selectivity. With its emphasis on school types this distracts from the larger issue: the content of the school admissions code and how to ensure compliance with it. If more balanced school intakes are desired, the focus should be on rules around admissions and permissible over-subscription criteria for all schools.

What are grammar schools the answer to?

Much of the current debate is predicated on the superior effectiveness of grammar schools. But the evidence we have reviewed suggests that the academic benefit of attending a grammar school is relatively small. Even these estimates are likely to be inflated by differences in intake that are not taken into account in the statistics.

Evidence on selection, both as part of the education system itself and within schools through setting or streaming, suggest there is little overall benefit to children’s academic achievement. The overall effect is, at best, zero-sum and most likely negative, with higher-attaining pupils benefiting at the expense of lower-attaining pupils, leading to an increase in inequality. The question remains whether that is a price worth paying.