I have written about selection at 11 before, and anyone who has spoken with me about this before will know that I am no fan whatsoever of selection at that age. My general position on secondary education is that all children should receive an academic education up to the age of 16. Claims that grammar schools improve social mobility in places where they currently exist have been thoroughly debunked, although as I understand it the issue is not that children on Free School Meals do badly at selective schools (in fact they do almost as well as their wealthier contemporaries), but rather that they are far less likely to get into a grammar school in the first place.
And yet selective education remains a highly popular policy on the political right and, if the EU referendum has taught us anything, it is that governments are ill-advised to ignore completely a popular demand, even if the majority of expert opinion is against the idea.
So, let’s assume for a moment that grammar schools do make a comeback, and a selective system is rolled out across the country. If the government is serious about its social mobility agenda, then it is quite clear that the system used in Kent should not be replicated. What might it therefore look like instead?
1. The secondary moderns will need to have a strong academic ethos.
The mistake made is always to focus of the grammars: it’s the secondary moderns that need to be the focus of reform. The worst thing that could happen in a new grammar system is that the new non-selective schools become seen as schools for children for whom an academic education is not important. All children are entitled to an academic education, and the vast majority are more than capable of studying an array of academic subjects until they are 16. I think we’re in a much better position on this front than we were in 1944, but there is a very real risk that we might slip back towards the idea that the lower end of the intelligence spectrum do not need an academic education.
2. The secondary moderns will need to have means of incentivising the best teachers to work there.
Teaching in a grammar school is not easy and I would not want to suggest otherwise, but it will inevitably be harder to attract higher-calibre teachers (define as you wish) into secondary moderns. I would suggest that teachers working in secondary moderns need smaller classes, fewer classes and preferably some other sweeteners to attract strong candidates for posts. If this leads me to suggest that funding to grammar schools should be lower than it is to secondary moderns, then it is not that I seek to make the work of teachers in grammars harder: rather it is a recognition that if secondary moderns fail to attract quality teachers, then the very case for reintroducing a selective system (i.e. social mobility) will be undermined.
3. Grammars will have to have a Free School Meal quota
This is already part of the government’s proposal, and I agree that it is necessary for the reforms to work. I would suggest that this quota should be set at the local average: if you local area has 20% on free school means, then that’s how many need to be in the selective school. There are lots of difficulties in making this work. If a child on Free School Meals leaves the school, or is excluded, then the grammar would have to take another student on Free School Meals in his or her place. Parents are very adept at playing the system, and I am sure some people will find ways to rig the system, although no more so than is currently the case with geographic catchments.
4. Grammar schools will need to go well beyond the curriculum offer of a secondary modern
One of the only cases I can see for grammar schools is that they allow more intelligent pupils to work through a curriculum more quickly. There is absolutely no reason why pupils in a grammar school should not be studying both history and geography at GCSE, at least one foreign language, with perhaps further qualifications in the social sciences. If I think about the top 20% of students I have taught in comprehensive schools, then very many of those got straight A*s and As in their GCSEs in a comprehensive. The only justification for them to be in a grammar school would be for them to be doing a greater number of subjects, perhaps 13-15 GCSEs in total.
5. I would consider making 11+ pass rate an accountability measure for primary schools
Excuse me whilst I put on my sunglasses to shield me from the glare of every primary school teacher in the land. But here’s the thing. Schools can make a difference. Wealthier parents will always be able to pay for tutors, and I suspect this will continue to pay off even if it is possible to ‘tutor proof’ tests (I remain to be convinced). A Free School Meal quota would help alleviate the effect of socio-economic background on attainment, and schools could publish both their non-FSM and FSM 11+ pass rates. It would be in a school’s best interest to enter all children for the test. I get that this adds pressure onto children aged 10-11, but this if you’re going to have a selective system, then this is going to happen anyway.
I think returning to a selective education system is a terrible idea. But if political expediency means it has to happen, then I would start with these things here as way of trying to make it work. At the very least, it would shake up areas which already have a selective system where it does not currently work: a reformed selective system would probably be a good thing for places like Kent where grammar schools are currently limiting rather than enabling social mobility.
As for me, I would continue to work in non-selective schools, provided they maintained an academic ethos. Otherwise the very thing that attracted me to teaching would evaporate.