Grammar schools are back in the news with Nicky Morgan’s approval of a Kent school’s expansion. But they’ve never been away, with one in five students in England attending a school affected by academic selection

The National Association for Secondary Moderns (NASM) sees the expansion of a Kent grammar school as a chance to raise issues that have affected schools in England’s selective local authorities for decades.

While some will either denounce or applaud the prospect of a “return of grammar schools”, we find ourselves repeating the same line; for some local authorities they never went away.

Important, from our point of view, is that the non-selective schools in these selective areas never went away either. It is these schools that we refer to as secondary moderns.

We want to reinvent the term secondary modern

We can accept that this name comes with its own problems, not least the negative connotations from people’s experiences of these schools in the 1950s and 1960s. We are keen, however, to champion the work of secondary moderns today – many of which do excellent work in challenging circumstances, with very little, or no, recognition.

We have set ourselves a goal to reinvent the term secondary modern in the public consciousness. Students in secondary moderns can be very successful; many go on to further study at university and in their time at school develop a wide range of skills through involvement in the activities on offer.

To be clear: this conversation is long overdue. National policies over the past few decades have ignored that academic selection has even been taking place. All of this while one in every five students in England currently attends a school affected by academic selection. A small, but not insignificant, minority.

The many initiatives introduced in education over the past few years has left us with school accountability and inspection systems that assume a “one size fits all” methodology, failing to take into account individual schools’ context and, in particular, the ability of their intake.

This has important consequences — they fail to properly hold to account all schools.

If the purpose of these systems is to continuously improve our schools and to provide the very best for the young people in them then it is vital that the systems are fit for purpose.

This is something NASM has raised with Ofsted (see our letter here and Ofsted’s response here).

We hope to highlight the bias in judgments, which indicate that for far too long judgments about schools have been based on the school’s outcomes in terms of the number of five A*-C at GCSE, including English and mathematics. This measure alone is far too closely linked to the prior attainment of pupils at the school – something that is particularly apparent in selective areas – to  be a fair indication of the quality of provision in the school.

Alongside the debate around the increase in grammar school places in Kent, and the implications for the future of England’s schools, we have other issues to contend with; changes to the inspection framework, qualification reform, changes to the school accountability system, EBacc for all, and coasting schools.

We welcome many aspects of the new accountability measures and in particular Progress 8. While it could be argued it is based around a curriculum (including its range of “academic” GCSEs) that is not necessarily suited to all students at secondary moderns, the fact it takes into account the starting point for students in a school means it marks an extremely welcome step towards a much more meaningful accountability measure.

However, we need to guard against this being derailed by its implementation.The advantages that come with Progress 8 are at risk from those wishing to place undue emphasis on a school’s attainment measure (Attainment 8) or from the introduction of new GCSE grades that place greater value on the highest grades available.

It has never been more important for secondary moderns to have a clear voice that is heard by the policymakers.

NASM provides that voice and celebrates the fantastic opportunties that secondary moderns provide for their students. You can expect to hear more from us.