There are more imaginative ways to improve social mobility than opening more grammar schools, explains former political advisor Adam McNicholas
I’m 30. In the not too distant future, I might have kids. Friends of mine are starting. Soon, when we get together, discussions will shift from plans for weekends away to plans for dealing with the anxieties of parenthood – childcare, schools and the rest.
With that in mind, yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph headline is worth serious reflection. ‘Theresa May to end ban on grammar schools’. If true, then by the time the policy makes it from discussions in Number 10, through the acrimonious passage of new laws, to the opening of new grammar schools – chances are – any prospective little McNicholas would be facing the 11-plus test to determine their secondary schooling.
Lifting the ban on grammar schools isn’t just a question for parents, would-be parents or pupils themselves. The ban symbolises something very profound about progress in England and Britain (education is devolved to national administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).
Talent – in all its form – is unique to each of us. The development of talent comes at different ages and at different stages in each of our lives. The ban on new grammar schools, introduced in 1998, recognised this. Institutionalising a system of ‘success and failure’ at the incredibly fragile and formative age of 11 might be of benefit to some – but it benefits them in a way that harms so many others.
Let’s flip the question on its head: how do we support the ‘gifted and talented’ (those, of whatever background, who academically are leaving their peers behind) to excel, full-steam ahead, and – at the same time – support those pupils making slower progress in numerical reasoning, verbal reasoning, mathematics and English?
This is a question I wrestled with during my time as an advisor to two former shadow education secretaries (between 2011 and 2015). “If you’re a really bright kid, you should have the opportunity to excel as far as your talents take you” so said ‘a government source’ quoted in the Sunday Telegraph. I couldn’t agree more. But if Theresa May’s administration actually believes this, then they will realise that they have stumbled across the wrong policy prescription.
What does the evidence show? Each side of the debate will claim a monopoly on its vaunted ‘evidence’. “All the evidence shows” is a phrase that should be banned from the political lexicon. But expect it to be deployed in the weeks and months ahead as this debate rages on.
The evidence I have seen does not suggest grammar schooling, where it exists (there are 163 that opened before 1998 and remain open), helps people from poor backgrounds ‘get on and move up’. In fact, in the South East, it seems to suggest a consolidation of benefit for middle class families. And why wouldn’t middle class families want the best for their kids? But that isn’t the test Theresa May set herself on the steps of Number 10 when she took office.
She could do worse than consider the proposal put forward by Tristram Hunt in November 2014 when he was shadow education secretary. He proposed that private schools (yes – different to grammar schools) should partner with state schools to offer resources to a partner school in the state sector that are not at their disposal. Why should a GCSE in Mandarin be the preserve of the privately educated, when we know the job opportunities for young people could be vast and exhilarating for Britain’s newcomers to the global labour markets? Where a state school is struggling to provide stimulating material in maths, why should it not seek and receive the support of a private school curriculum where kids – different only in their parent’s income – are achieving the results that give them access to lucrative and stimulating careers?
If the grammar school policy really is firmly on Theresa May’s agenda, two things will become apparent. First, that public opinion will be more divided than the rather qualified account of opinion as portrayed by the ORB poll in the Sunday Telegraph. Second, that she will have to prosecute a campaign based on a political narrative – not one that is rooted in good policy or sound evidence. Far better she examines the wealth of policy proposals that will actually jump-start the stalled social mobility in the UK.
Adam McNicholas was a political advisor to successive shadow education secretaries between 2011 and 2015. He writes here in a personal capacity.