Nick Seaton: Support grows for more grammar schools

An ICM opinion poll, carried out for the National Grammar Schools Association, produced results that surprised many people.

Asked if they supported the retention of the 232 state-funded grammar schools in England and Northern Ireland as an additional, voluntary choice for parents, 70 per cent of those questioned supported existing grammar schools, while only 19 per cent opposed them with 10 per cent saying they didn't know.

The pollsters also asked if people would support the introduction of some new grammar schools, especially in urban areas where there currently are none: 76 per cent supported the idea.

Support was strong across all age and income groups with a remarkable 85 per cent of 18-to-24 year-olds wanting more grammar schools. This suggests that claims that only the older generation cares about grammar schools are without foundation.

Four years ago, ICM found that 70 per cent would like to see new grammar schools introduced, so support for this idea is growing and not non-existent as our political masters tell us.

So what is going on? Above all, the poll highlights just how out of touch the leaders of the three largest political parties are. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have always been at best ambivalent, at worst totally hostile, to grammar schools. Until David Cameron became leader of the Conservatives, they were largely supportive.

Not now. Mr Cameron and his team claim they support existing grammar schools but refuse seriously to consider any more. They are messianic in their support of academies, but, by definition, these must be comprehensive. So must their proposed "free" schools.

For grammar schools, this means death by 1,000 cuts: Cameron's policy has produced a ratchet effect, whereby existing grammar schools can be disrupted and undermined, but without the possibility of any movement in the opposite direction. Conservative local authorities are often the worst offenders.

Current threats include "federating" grammars with less successful, non-grammar schools; merging grammar and non-selective schools to form a comprehensive academy; and "federating" two single-sex grammar schools to form one co-educational school. Such measures always mean fewer 11-year-olds are offered the opportunity of a grammar school education.

Politicians claim there's no demand for grammar schools and the tests for places are cruel. Really? Don't we specially and separately train promising athletes for the Olympic Games? Should we not apply for a job, for fear we fail to get it?

Two years ago, Kent had 1,232 applicants from outside the county, who freely volunteered to take the 11-plus for a place in one or other of Kent's grammar schools.

Last year, that number had risen to 1,810 – an increase of roughly 50 per cent in two years. Of those 1,810, 924 "passed" the test, but only 268 could be offered places. Despite "passing" the test, the remaining 656 were denied their choice of school.

Two years ago, a Surrey grammar school made headlines when 1,500 children voluntarily turned up to take the 11-plus. Last year, that number had increased to 1,700 with only 130 places on offer.

In the real world – and contrary to what politicians tell us – thousands of families and their children are prepared to make supreme efforts and face frightening odds in the hope of acquiring a superb education within the state system.

Instead of confronting the issue and doing something about it, political leaders have chosen an Orwellian suppression of evidence they find uncomfortable. Like Big Brother, they are trying to expunge grammar schools from the national consciousness.

In 2005, an email to education ministers and senior civil servants was sent by Sir Cyril Taylor, who was then chairman of what is now the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. Copies found their way into the public domain and to senior opposition politicians. Most of the content was about internal research in which the brightest pupils were identified from their national test results, when they were 11. The same pupils were then tracked through until they took their A-levels at 18.

The email said: "A significant proportion (possibly as many as 22,000 a year) of our most able children are not realising their potential." These were the ones who failed to achieve the three top-grade A-levels they were capable of. Few went to grammar or independent schools.

No-one wants to go back to a compulsory 11-plus when children were partitioned for the rest of their school careers. But along with faith schools, academy schools and "free" schools if they ever appear, why not allow more grammar schools with a voluntary 11-plus where people want that option?

The evidence in favour is overwhelming. And what has happened to

democracy when 20 per cent, or even fewer, are allowed to deny choice to the other 80 per cent who show more sense?

Nick Seaton, from York, is chairman of the Campaign for Real Education.