Grammar schools are not the answer to improving social mobility – brilliant, well-trained teachers are

Photographer: Jared Yeh

It's not often that an education policy inspires unison in the sector, but the government's proposal to re-introduce grammar schools seemed to do just that, bringing the vast majority of education professionals together to say what a terrible idea it was.

"The aims are entirely honourable," says Patrick Watson, a policy analyst and communications adviser. "The government wants to increase the number of school places and improve social mobility, but the means of achieving that are simply flawed.

"There is no shortcut through selective schooling – it won't deliver what they want and in the process they will have huge political challenges and alienate a lot of their erstwhile supporters."

Old school

Grammar schools were first introduced to the UK in the 1944 Education Act, which organised schools into three streams: grammar schools for those who were likely to go on to higher education; secondary moderns for those who would go into trades; and technical schools which would serve industry and science (although few of these were ever established). It became, in effect, a two-tier system where pupils were sorted at age 11 by way of an exam (the 11-plus).

This began two decades of what is now widely thought to have been an unfair system, through which class divisions were reinforced and opportunities for social mobility missed. In 1965, the Labour government introduced the comprehensive schooling system, ordered that no new grammar schools be established, and existing ones be phased out. There are now just 163 grammar schools in England.

So why think about bringing them back? The answer, Watson says, has far more to do with politics and voters than education. "It's a concern of a group of voters who feel disenfranchised and dispossessed by the current system and are not getting access to the quality of services, particularly schools, that they aspire to.

"There are people in government who believe that the shortest route to improving access to good schools is to create more good schools quickly – and they think selective schools mean good schools."

Government vs experts

An endless obsession with structures just won't deliver

Patrick Watson

The problem is that while a selective system may provide social mobility for those sent to grammar schools, it has the opposite effect on those left behind.

Prime minister Theresa May has repeatedly spoken about her desire to improve social justice, and education minister Justine Greening has described teachers as "experts in levelling up opportunity for all our young people". Four out of five teachers oppose the proposals, however, along with headteachers, the recently departed Ofsted chair Michael Wilshaw, and the national schools commissioner Sir David Carter, who spoke out against introducing selection to multi-academy trusts (MATs).

"The evidence simply isn't there," Watson says. "You just have to look at the reaction of the big stakeholders and the people who know the most about the issue, like the Social Mobility Commission, The Sutton Trust and Teach First. They don't think it will have any impact on social mobility and believe that selection is really just a distraction.

"I suspect the government was shocked that they couldn't find anyone who would give unqualified support to the proposals, and I'm certain that if they look in any detail at the responses to the green paper, they will find that a lot of their allies are really against bringing this in, so they've got a problem."

Backtrack or change tack?

The question is: what will the government do now? Watson predicts some expansion of existing grammar schools, which had previously been banned, and perhaps some MATs introducing selection into their chains, although this could be "very divisive".

For the government to achieve their goal of improving social mobility through education, he says, what should happen is quite different."There is a focus on changing structures and selection and so on. But improvements to schools come through making sure you recruit, train and retain the best teachers and make sure the quality of teaching in the classroom is extremely good throughout the system. Combine this with a robust, relevant curriculum and a pipeline of good leaders, and you stand a chance of transforming the system. An endless obsession with structures just won't deliver."

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