Grammar schools could get cash for lowering 11-plus pass mark, and 4 other things we learned from Nick Gibb at education committee

MPs have grilled the schools minister Nick Gibb for almost two hours over the government’s grammar school expansion plans, academy trust accountability and teacher pay.

Here are the five most important things we learned.

1. Selective schools could lower 11-plus pass mark to get expansion cash

Grammar schools hoping to get their hands on a share of the £200 million expansion could widen access by reducing the test scores needed to win entry, Gibb said today.

The minister set out some of the proposals selective schools could include in their “fair access and partnership plans”, which they must complete in order to bid for the cash.

“So it might be lowering the entrance percentage mark on the entrance exam and so on,” he said. “It might be enabling local parents to be able to see previous versions of the test. It might be helping parents prepare their children for the exam.”

It’s not the first time the idea of having different pass marks for poorer pupils has been discussed with the committee.

Two years ago, the Department for Education’s chief scientist Tim Leunig admitted said it would be possible to “level the playing field” on the 11-plus by introducing different pass marks for pupils on free school meals, as pass marks often already vary depending on birth month.

2. Grammar school funding will only help ‘a few thousand’ pupils

Selective schools are being encouraged to apply for a share of a £200 million fund for expansion in exchange for taking on more disadvantaged pupils.

However, Gibb admitted today that the move will only help “a few thousand” disadvantaged pupils get into grammar schools

“It’s low because there are only 163 grammar schools, and we are only allocating £50 million to this fund, compared to the £1 billion [for schools in general] in 2018-19.”

MPs criticised the narrow scope of the funding, and suggested the money would be better spent on revenue projects, like providing free 11-plus tutoring to poorer pupils.

3. The move to a two-year KS3 ‘worries’ ministers

The government is worried about a move by schools to start pupils on their GCSE courses earlier, reducing the amount of time they can spend studying a wider range of subjects.

Gibb told MPs this morning that evidence that schools are ending key stage 3 at the end of year 8 “worries me hugely”. The chief inspector of schools Amanda Spielman is also concerned, he said.

“I’m worried about the curriculum at key stage 3, I’m worried about key stage 3 becoming two years in some schools, which means that some children are missing out on a third year of history or geography or a third year of science. Even if they continue to do science at GCSE, they’re missing a year’s knowledge in that subject. That worries me hugely.”

4. Ofsted’s powers to inspect MATs are still ‘under review’

Gibb was asked by Trudy Harrison, whose Copeland constituency has been home to a row over Bright Tribe’s running of the Whitehaven Academy, how the government could “root out” bad trusts if Ofsted cannot directly inspect academy trusts.

At present, the watchdog can only do “focused inspections” of schools within a trust, but Amanda Spielman wants powers to inspect academy trusts as a whole.

“These are issues we keep under review,” said Gibb. “They can certainly batch-inspect a large number of academies in a particular chain, and then you get a feel for the quality of education in those particular academies in that multi-academy trust.

“We continue to keep the other issues, about whether Ofsted should be looking at the back office, the services provided by the multi-academy trust to those schools, under review.”

5. Teacher pay scales will be out ‘before recess’

Following the government’s decision to list the one-per-cent cap on teacher pay rises, schools are still waiting to hear how large an increase the government will approve.

Gibb told MPs today that he “remains personally of the view” that pay “must be a factor to some extent in terms of encouraging young graduates to come into the teaching profession”.

However, the minister did not say exactly when the government would publish details of the pay settlement for 2018-19, just that it would be out “before the recess”, which begins on July 24.

“We rely on the evidence that the School Teachers Review Body look at. They’re advised by experts. We will look at their report that’s been sent to the secretary of state, and then later, before the recess, we will respond to that report.”

Last year, the government’s response to the STRB report, which confirmed the pay scales for 2017-18, was published on July 10.