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Selective education is rising up the agenda: it’s no time for fudging

SevenoaksAnnexAccording to the Kent on Sunday newspaper (page 11) Nicky Morgan is expected to approve the renewed application for a Sevenoaks “annex” to the Weald of Kent Grammar School.

The Conservatives have blown hot and cold on selective schooling. Some recognise that selection at eleven doesn’t have sufficient political legs to run very far but others just dream of a return to the way things were. The more considered opinion in the Conservative camp shows an awareness of what an electoral loser a system which assigns a minority of children a better future than the rest at the age of eleven can be. Not only that but some Conservatives recognise the good quality of their maintained secondary schools. Nevertheless, many Conservative MPs are supporting calls for more grammar schools. This includes Teresa May (who backs calls for a grammar school “extension” in her constituency) and Boris Johnson (who wants more grammar schools in London).

Divergent views on selective schooling also exist in the Labour Party. The overwhelming majority of Labour education activists oppose selection. However, the Shadow Education Secretary has made it clear that Labour will not move against existing grammar schools and that even though selection at eleven harms all children Labour will not end it. Labour prefers to focus on getting schools of all types to cooperate with each other under the guidance of a locally appointed Director of School Standards. Ambivalence over selection was clear in a statement by Claire Leigh, Labour Parliamentary candidate for Tonbridge & Malling who said that the proposed Sevenoaks annexe “seems unnecessary” because:

The Knole Academy has a highly rated Grammar Stream and has benefited from multi-million pound investments in the past two years. The Knole Academy Grammar Stream offers all the benefits of a diverse and comprehensive learning environment while also catering to different abilities.

Which suggests that selection between schools is not needed because it is going on within schools. Meanwhile London Mayoral hopeful David Lammy says that he supports selective schools in the capital.

UKIP wants “a grammar school in every town” and says that “Existing schools will be allowed to apply to become grammar schools and select according to ability and aptitude”. So, no problems with selection on their part! This forthright, if divisive, stance is putting pressure on the Tories. It find great favour in the Daily Mail and The Telegraph and among the general membership of the party. So the feeling is that if they do not want to lose votes to UKIP they should match their call for more grammar schools.

The Lib Dem’s position is similar to that of the Labour Party. They do not want to see more grammar schools created (without pronouncing on extensions) but would not move against existing grammar schools and the selection this involves. Support for grammar schools is higher among Lib Dem membership than it is in the Labour Party with the majority of those expressing a view in a poll on the question supporting grammar schools. All the same many Lib Dem members are opposed to selective schools.

What all this adds up to is the issue of selection at eleven being an election issue, at least in some constituencies. Poll results are perhaps ambivalent in that so much depends on the question but overall they appear to indicate that the majority of voters, despite all the hostile propaganda, are inclined to support non-selective education run within a local authority framework. That inclination will only be turned into votes if the work of campaigning and explanation is done. Nothing is to be gained by fudging the issues.

Interestingly Comprehensive Future has recently pointed out that there is a growing basis for cross-party consensus to oppose grammar schools making it even more urgent that Labour takes a clear stance and gives some leadership on the issue.

Some links materials on grammar schools are given below starting with a really handy document from the NUT.

1. The case against grammars summarised by the NUT

2. Two pieces from the SEA blog by John Bolt

Trafford, its Grammar Schools, what Graham Brady didn’t say and the Today programme didn’t ask

More nostalgia for selection – and why it’s wrong

3. Two contributions from Selena Todd

The recent Caroline Memorial Lecture on grammar school myths

On celebrating comprehensive schools, and the character they produce

4. Fiona Millar on the Sevenoaks grammar school project

5. Dean Burnett on the alleged ‘horrors’ of state school education

6. Lynsey Hanley on why bringing back grammars will not help working class children

7. E Jane Dickson on why grammar schools are not the answer

8. The majority of Lib Dems who have an opinion on the matter far more grammar schools

9. UKIP policy is to have a grammar school in every town

10. New grammar school in Kent edges towards approval

11. Nicky Morgan urged to approve new grammar school

This article first appeared on the website of the Socialist Educational Association


  1. James Martin says:

    It always amazes me that the support for grammar schools extends well beyond the normal Daily Mail types. In part this often seems to be from a certain generation who went to them and say how well they did. Well yes, but excuse me, as a working class kid I went to a ‘bog standard’ comprehensive and I still managed to get lots of fancy pieces of paper and multiple letters after my name (all completely useless), so flippin’ what?

    But then there is a blind nostalgia for some mythical golden age of education that never existed, because the grammar supporters always seem to be very reluctant to discuss the fact that for every grammar school you normally have 2 or 3 second class secondary moderns (or as they are known today the ‘vocational’ UTC’s and academy ‘studio’ schools where the bottom academic achievers are pushed to boost the A-C stats of the parent academies). And they also ignore the fact that there is no evidence to support the widely spoken view that grammars aid social mobility (in fact the statistical evidence shows the opposite is the case in the current grammars who have extraordinarily low levels of kids on free school meals which is the main rough and ready indicator of pupil poverty).

    And of course the real history of the end of grammars is not that it was a ‘socialist experiment’ in the form of comprehensives, but that by the 1960s there was overwhelming cross-party support for their abolition as they were viewed – or rather correctly the secondary moderns that went with them were viewed – as abject failures and barriers to ending class division.

    That the Tories have turned their backs on their own history is no surprise (they did the same with council housing – far more council homes were built in the 1950s by Tory governments and local councils than by Labour ones). But what still shocks (although perhaps shouldn’t) is that our own education people (Hunt etc.) also fail both to understand the truth of grammars let alone fight against the dangerous myths that are currently being spread about them.

    1. James Martin says:

      PS – I also meant to add that we are constantly told how wonderful the Independent sector is, and how other schools should copy the Etons and Harrows etc. Well yes, but quite apart from the huge gulf in resources and per pupil spending that goes into theses schools compared to the state sector, they are also successful because they are nearly all oppose academic selection. In other words, the comprehensive model copied the academically successful independent model in everything but funding, which is another nail in the argument that the only way to ‘raise standards’ (however politically loaded that term is) is grammar school selection at the age of 11 (or any age for that matter)!

      1. Robert says:


        1. Robert says:

          Sorry what went wrong I wrote a piece and all that came up was labourlist.

          I did say Labour list are talking about education and Hunt at the moment and the way we are going is we are returning to the Victorian period with education selective and our National health will go to toward the American model as the American model moved towards ours for now anyway.

          We are struggling to defend the labour party of the past as we move towards the New labour model which is not dead but alive and well under Progress.

          1. Ric Euteneuer says:

            I often find even those from the so called left of the party are covert supporters of selection. This takes many forms – sending their own children to selective schools “because there’s no other alternative”; trying to justify it as ‘aptitude tests’ rather than intelligence (Yes, I’m looking at your, so-called opponent of selections Fiona Millarrrrrrrrrrrr); using banding for admissions (Fiona and co again).

            I guess it’s just too much to expect middle class pseudolefties to actually adhere to principles.

  2. Peter Rowlands says:

    A timely piece by David.It is worth adding that the comprehensive revolution could have been completed had the Callaghan government effectively capitulated to the mounting attacks on progressive educational ideas in the late 70s, enabling a rump of 7% of the population to remain under selective education, which they have broadly ever since, despite the attempts tochange things in the early years of New Labour, which were not supported by the government. Selection could and should easily have been ended in New Labour’s first term. However, what is also of note is that attempts to reverse things the other way, ie to reestablish selection failed as well. The Solihull referendum on the issue of I think 1981is best known, where the Consevative voting middle classes of the area voted to retain comprehensive schools. The reasons for this are thought to highlight the real reasons for support for selection – social differentiation, in other words not having to have your sesitive middle class offspring mix with working class oiks. In Solihull however it didn’t matter as it was overwhelmingly middle class anyway, and you didn’t run the risk of your middle class child not passing the 11+.
    Selection is a stain, there are no good arguments for it, and a decent Labour government would abolish it.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Yes, selection is a stain. The policy document agreed by Annual Conference says clearly “Academic selection at 11 damages education for all children”. Tristram Hunt says equally clearly that Labour will not end selection at eleven. There should be strong protests at this evident policy contradiction. You are right that there is a basis for a unified campaign on this going well beyond Labour ranks (see the Comprehensive Future article linked above).

  3. swatantra says:

    Morgan’s Approval may just be a sop to UKIPERs in Kent, and then after 2015 the policy will be quietly shelved, they hope when UKIP fever evaporates into the aether.
    Grammer Schools are an abomination and an anachronism and for snobs. A good Comprehensive would deal with all 3 bands of ability academically and then allow for social interaction from all backgrounds in the school community. That way kids get used to meeting BAME children and European children and SEN Children, the well off and the not so well off, thoise who live in posh houses and those that live on council estates. Thats the way we need to be to create a dynamic Britain, if we are to compete with the rest of the world. Great article.

    1. David Pavett says:

      “All three bands of academic ability”?

      1. swatantra says:

        Higher Intermediate and Foundation Levels

        1. David Pavett says:

          I still have no idea what this means except as a normative template which separates alleged sheep from alleged goats. No knowledge is needed for this sort of distinction. Even while knowing nothing about a given subject we can talk about its “three different levels”. When distinctions can be made without knowledge of any particular material they have little value for informed debate.

    2. Ric Euteneuer says:

      I don’t think so. The number of Tories who believe in selective education is massive. It is only the “metropolitan elite” who are keeping them from endorsing it. John Major, seen by some as a centrist Tory, in the 1997 manifesto, promised a “Grammar School” in every town.

      We don’t need banding, we need good teaching and a relevant and interesting curriculum.

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