Policy

The Labour Party should complete its unfinished revolution

This parliament is an opportunity to phase out the last remaining grammar schools - or face private education by the back door

This parliament is an opportunity to phase out the last remaining grammar schools - or face private education by the back door

8 Jul 2024, 17:00

In 2018, I wrote a chapter on selective schools for a fascinating book about education system design. In it, I made two recommendations:

  1. End state subsidies to privateschools, including the introduction of a tax on fees
  2. Phase out grammar schools

I am pleased to say that we are well on the way to achieving the first. However, without the second I am concerned it will be an unfinished revolution.

To re-state the facts: seven per cent of children currently attend a private school and three per cent attend a grammar school.

If the IFS (Institute for Fiscal Studies) is right, the introduction of VAT on school fees is likely to result in between five to seven per cent of pupils moving from private to state schools, yielding a net boost to the treasury of up to £1.5 billion. A clear majority of the public support the policy, so all is good.

Pupil numbers are set to fall over the next decade, so it should not be difficult for state schools to absorb the extra numbers. Indeed, it could even help them protect their budgets.

But how will the changes affect those areas of the country (like Kent, Lincolnshire and Buckinghamshire) that still have grammar schools?

Grammar schools tend to serve the most advantaged in society; only 6.7 per cent of their pupils are eligible for free school meals compared to 28.4 per cent in nearby non-selective schools. Unsurprisingly, only 4.3 per cent of grammar school pupils have a special educational need or disability.

I suspect that in those local authorities where grammar schools remain, the introduction of VAT on private school fees will result in greater pressure for places in some of those grammar schools. This has been hyped up in much of the right-wing press – but also challenged by the Grammar School Heads Association.

The result could be private education by the back door

It’s worth noting that many grammar school pupils live outside of what would be their school’s catchment. In fact, 29 grammar schools admit more than 50 per cent of their pupils from further afield. The new tax could increase this trend.

The result could be private education by the back door.

Entry to grammar schools is already largely the preserve of those who can afford to pay for private tuition to pass the 11+. That market is only going to grow with the new tax, which will leave even fewer places for other young people.

In other words, those who can afford it will go to a grammar school as a form of private education by proxy.

The answer is clear.

The comprehensive revolution begun by Labour in 1965 should now be completed. The new government should phase the remaining grammars into comprehensives over the five years of this parliament.

It would be a straightforward process, one most areas concluded decades ago. Most of the country would not even notice and it would cost next to nothing. Some parents in the areas where grammar schools still exist would object, but most parents nationally would not.

A few might argue that grammar schools are good for social mobility. On the contrary, research has found that children growing up in areas that have grammar schools face much higher earnings inequality later in life than those growing up in areas without them.

Stephen Gorard, professor of education at the University of Durham, says “there is repeated evidence that any appearance of advantage for those attending selective schools is outweighed by the disadvantage for those who do not”. That’s why Theresa May’s proposals to create new grammar schools never saw the light of day.

If we are really to tackle the disadvantage gap and raise education standards across the whole country, we cannot continue to allow this anomaly in our education system.

Selection in education entrenches privilege and disadvantage. Like whooping cough and rickets, such schools belong to a different age.

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6 Comments

  1. Carl, you’re Headteacher of a school with much lower than average FSM that mostly serves pupils from the least deprived areas (see IDACI data). These types of schools let in only those from families that can afford the local house prices. We must remove them in case private school or grammar school children try to get in through another back door!

    You’re of course welcome to join us by working at more disadvantaged settings and really make a difference to equality of opportunity.

    • carl smith

      I have worked in many schools in my career including in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country. My current school has an intake which is spot on the national average on intake based on KS2 SAT scores and an above average percentage of SEND support.

  2. Clive Jones

    The 7% independent school figure is often quoted but is seriously misleading. Firstly, the crude percentages are 5% for those pupils attending primary schools rising to 8% at secondary schools and 17% at 6th forms. Secondly, we need to remember that an astonishing 40% of pupils do not progress to 6th form and so the figure is 17% of those students actually studying in 6th forms. Put another way, the 83% of state school 6th formers are less than half of the underlying youth demographic. Thirdly, all the figures so far are for ‘current’ pupils. If we instead consider the proportion of people ever attending independents, it shoots up to 1 in 5. For persons aged 18 to 24 it is more than 1 in 3! Fourthly, the independent sector is tiny in Northern Ireland and not very large in Scotland. Labour are giving the impression they are a government wishing to devolve authority and so the regional picture is important. Within England, the proportion of population ever attending an independent school ranges from 16% in the South West to 34% in Greater London. Again, restricting to ages 18 to 24 boosts these proportions further. Finally, to put all these figures in context only 34% of voters voted for Labour in the General Election. In fact, Labour barely attracted the votes of 1 in 5 of the total electorate (turnout was 60%). In terms of popularity, therefore, there is not much difference between the Labour Party and independent schools.

  3. Nathan

    So what. It is not your job, nor do you have any right, morally or actual to try and recreate your fantastical, socialist utopia.
    As a beneficiary of a grammar school education…. I can personally attest to their virtue. As a naturally lazy, uninspired and easily distracted boy; had I attended the local comprehensive in my somewhat affluent area, like my sisters did, I would have sunk – as they did. Instead I caught the bus to the grammar school in the neighbouring education authority, a poorer working class market town in a rural setting. I needed that environment, largely generated by the knowledge that everyone at the school had the aptitude and so there were no excuses.
    Today I live in the Midlands and there are grammar schools here too. Guarding against mediocrity and providing all children in the area with the opportunity to excel. The result, successful towns and localities which are more affluent and have lower need for free school meals than those served by a comprehensive system.
    Grammar and small private schools do not thrive because of the absence of poverty. They are institutions, amongst others that help create a culture that militates against generational poverty. Protecting neighbourhoods from vanishing industry, from intellectual emigration, from diminishing cultural enrichment and declining spiritual and pastoral care. Like the grammar school in the working class town I referred to previously, largely abandoned by the state and humbled by the loss of industry it is propped up by it’s grammar school.
    This article interprets the data and it’s purpose very specifically. Let’s return to this rural, working class town. Obviously, obviously, those with superior results will do better and where the cultural systems have broken down opportunities for those with lower results will be less…so clearly a gradient will emerge. But what would be the effect of removing the school? Yes the gradients would be reduced but the town would have one fewer cultural bastion again impoverishment…a less diverse area because people aren’t travelling into the town. More isolation, more emigration of intellectual capital and gradual decline. So although the schools generate a gradient they protect against net decline. The school goes, the gradient goes and so does the net benefit…we all suffer more albeit in greater equality.
    So here’s the question, an equality of poverty or a relatively disparity in moderate wealth? The socialist will choose the former, people who care about people the latter.

  4. Hamza

    Really! The solution is to get ride of most performing schools and not to get other schools to the same level! What is next? Get ride of high performing universities, why do we need Oxford or Cambridge!
    Really!

  5. This article creates the impression that all in all Labour and its electorate is anti education, to be educated is something indecent and pursuing to be educated is a crime. Does Labour aim to level down to mediocrity the whole country? Is the aim to transform the education system into a childcare facility aiming to make sure that children survive to the age of 18 and after that just join the queue for social benefits? This country would have perished long time ago, if it had leaders like this. Gavroche-es attempted to do the same in 1848 in France, Bolshevik’s in Russia in 1917-1941 and the Communists in the 40es in Eastern Europe- it was a disaster and a tragedy that perpetuated poverty and brought in corruption at every level. It took decades to rebuild the countries afterwards and they still have not succeeded. You have to be mad to wish upon yourself and your country something like that. The author must have have missed all history lessons in school, which is a shame. Why not to aim at creating smaller classes in comp schools, finance better the education to reach out deeper in the impoverished areas to enable more to succeed? Build more schools, educate more teachers, not destroy what is already built up and created and works well for the benefit of the kids and the country? Why not convert more state schools into grammar? Why not prep the primary schools kids to pass the 11+ as part of the curriculum? Remove the envy and spread the excellence in education, create more of it, not less. God, help this country!