Can Corbyn get his way on comprehensives?

How will Jeremy Corbyn’s unwavering commitment to cull the 11-plus and the remaining grammar schools work, politically and practically speaking, now that he has become leader? For starters, it will mean a chance – at last – of starting a national conversation about the extent and reality of selection in England in the 21st century

Jeremy Corbyn has been unusually steadfast in his commitment to non-selective education. In this summer’s leadership campaign, he clearly restated his position: “We would want all grammars to become comprehensives and end the 11-plus where it still exists. We need to be bolder about all children having an equal chance, proud of the idea of first-rate community comprehensive education and encourage a diverse mix of pupils in all our schools.”

At the very least, his clarity promises movement on an issue that has remained depressingly static for too long. Since 1998, the official Labour position has been not to change the legal status of the 164 grammars that resisted the national move to comprehensive education in the 60s and 70s. Party spokespeople have either argued that grammars are not a real problem or that, given they are “good schools”, they shouldn’t be closed.

There are 15 fully selective local authorities operating pretty much the same as was devised after the Second World War. Selective schools, some of them “super selective”, further distort the picture in 36 other authorities around England.

Comprehensive Future (CF) will be drawing attention to the human impact of the 11-plus at a special conference in November, that will bring together representatives from selective areas around the country. Every year thousands of children are told that they are failures, before they have even reached puberty, on the basis of a test that largely reflects social background and cultural capital, not true individual potential. A tiny percentage eligible for the pupil premium are educated at grammar schools and entire areas are routinely segregated on class and ethnic grounds.

Among the speakers at our November conference will be those from the right of the political spectrum who recognise the ways in which selection depresses, rather than advances, social mobility.

Commitment to non-selective education was one of the most original elements of the Michael Gove years. But if, in the wake of the former education secretary’s demise, traditionalist Tories get their way and the government commits to opening more grammar schools, an even more interesting scenario could develop: a Tory party, in effect, committed to a return to the grammar/secondary modern divide of old versus a Labour party pledged to a truly nationwide model of non-selective education.

For the first time in decades, there could be a clear difference in education policy across party lines.

But let’s not underestimate the task this would present a Corbyn-led Labour. Leaving aside the problem of internal dissension, making the public case for a completely comprehensive system would require great courage and nifty political footwork.

First, the party needs to develop a clear policy, and time frame, for opening up existing grammar schools to a broader intake.

Second, Labour needs to tackle the more general “admissions quagmire”, with the aim of reducing, if not fully eradicating, the unfair distortions produced by postcodes, faith, and so on.

Finally, Labour must couple these reforms with a bold, overarching vision of a school system fit for the 21st century. This should include a renewed emphasis on the importance of positive discipline, academic excellence within good local schools, the power of great teaching and strong leadership.

Labour should also push the benefits of national and city challenge type collaborations, the importance of a creative curriculum, and the need for the integration of vocational and academic learning through a baccalaureate-style structure. The public also want to see qualified teachers, proper central oversight of planning for school places and teacher supply.

Jeremy Corbyn starts from the right place, but he will need to mobilise a broad coalition and do some hard thinking if he wants to create a positive, outward looking vision of high quality comprehensive education.

Comprehensive Future Conference, Selection, the growing threat, is on Saturday November 21. To book go to: www.ticketsource.co.uk/date/185434


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