In early March, Theresa May articulated her vision for education, ahead of announcement that £320m would be confirmed for 140 new free schools and the expansion of existing selective schools.
The prime minister wrote: "Our Schools White Paper…will remove the barriers that prevent more good faith-based free schools from opening, and it will enable the creation of new selective free schools so that the most academically gifted children get the specialist support to fulfill their potential regardless of their family income or background."
This announcement raises three major concerns.
It has been widely reported that school budgets are at breaking point, with many leaders running deficits, restructuring staffing, making redundancies and some even considering a shorter school week. It's no surprise then that the commitment to spend £320m on new schools has been met with scorn and anger from existing schools.
There's no denying that more school places are needed: there is currently a current 'bulge' in primary schools that will hit secondaries in the next five years. It's understandable to say that this funding should be used instead to fund existing schools rather than new school places, but doing so will only delay the problem and create even greater shortages down the line.
Instead, we need argue that schools desperately need an injection of cash in the short term, and agree minimum per-pupil funding in the new formula, while recognising the need to create more school places.
Lifting the ban on selective admissions
SSAT – the schools, students and teachers network – responded to the government's earlier consultation, firmly opposing both increased selection and removal of the current 50% cap on faith-based admissions for new schools.
The evidence is overwhelming: selective admission does not promote social mobility, and actually damages the educational outcomes of other schools in the area.
The Education Policy Institute's report on the issue – using data from the national pupil database – found that:
- Once prior attainment and pupil background is taken into consideration, there is no overall attainment impact of grammar schools, either positive or negative.
- Pupils who are eligible for free school meals (FSM) are under-represented in grammar schools. Only 2.5% of grammar school pupils are entitled to FSM, compared with an average of 13.2% in all state funded secondary schools.
- There is no significant positive impact on social mobility. The gap between children on FSM (attaining five A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths) and all other children is actually wider in selective areas than in non-selective areas – at around 34% compared with 28%.
- An expansion of grammar schools in areas which already have a large number of selective schools could lead to lower gains for grammar school pupils and small attainment losses for those not attending selective schools – losses which will be greatest among poor children.
- If you compare high-attaining pupils in grammar schools with similar pupils who attend high-quality non-selective schools, there are five times as many high-quality non-selective schools as there are grammar schools.
- Other interventions have proven to be more effective than grammar schools in raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. The sponsored academies programme has had a more positive impact on the attainment of disadvantaged pupils than the present grammar school system.
Although this government has stated that all young people deserve a broad and balanced curriculum, increased selection would clearly put this universal entitlement at risk.
Ignoring the experts
Arguably the biggest scandal about the policy announcement is the apparent disregard for the profession's views: the consultation seems to have been a complete travesty.
With three weeks to go before the end of the consultation period in December, the chancellor confirmed in the autumn statement that money would be put aside for grammars. And now, despite the response to the consultation not yet being published, we are told that a white paper is imminent and that this will pave the way for legislation removing the ban on new grammars.
It is hard to believe that the public and profession's responses to this policy were favorable. When education secretary Justine Greening remarked that the response was not "an overwhelming flood of negativity", her words said rather a lot.
Greening and her team claim to want to listen to the profession and work with them, yet have done the exact opposite. The hours that we spent gathering evidence and writing responses appear to have been entirely wasted – our views dismissed, seemingly without consideration.
For ministers to claim that they want an evidence-informed profession and dialogue with teachers is not just laughable now, but shocking. This charade will surely undermine any future efforts to elicit opinion and expertise.
But maybe that's what democracy has come to in 2017.