Change in policy on grammar schools leaves Labour an open goal on education - Jayne Dowle

I will share with you a cautionary tale about grammar schools. My son used to play cricket with a couple of lads whose family had relocated to Barnsley from Hampshire. The mother, shall we say, considered herself a slight cut above the rest of us parents.

She was very fond of having “big chats” about education whilst we served sweets at the tuck shop and made no secret of the fact that, although she couldn’t afford to pay, she wanted the very best for her sons.

“As do we all,” I would mutter under my breath when she was in full flow, speaking to us uneducated South Yorkshire oiks as if we’d all had to leave school at 14 and go down the pit (as my grandad, born in 1901, did).

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When the time came for secondary school choices to be made, she insisted that her eldest was going to “Penistone Grammar”, a well-renowned out-of-catchment school 10 miles and two buses away from where the family lived. Nothing, not even the absence of any 11-plus entrance exam, would convince her that the school was no longer an actual grammar, having been one of the first former grammar schools in England to become fully non-selective, in 1969.

Kit Malthouse is the new Education Secretary. PIC: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty ImagesKit Malthouse is the new Education Secretary. PIC: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images
Kit Malthouse is the new Education Secretary. PIC: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

We lost touch, thankfully, so I never found out what cachet even “Grammar” in the title of their school added to her sons’ education. It was, however, a significant lesson for me. I learned then that some parents are so completely blinded by the glamour of a grammar school education, they will ignore everything else, even common sense, in its pursuit.

And so, it seems, is the new Conservative government. Speaking exclusively to The Yorkshire Post last week, the new Education Secretary, 55-year-old Kit Malthouse (who attended Liverpool College at the time when it was still independent), revealed that the Government is drawing up plans to end the 25-year-old ban on new grammar schools, playing right to the crowd.

It was not only impressive but meaningful that he chose our regional newspaper to share details of this controversial policy with first. Yorkshire is one of a few English counties, Kent being a notable other, which still has flourishing grammar schools; there are six in our region, in North Yorkshire, Calderdale and Kirklees.

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I know that there will be parents reading this who have actually moved house to ensure that they are in a particular catchment. Yorkshire towns and cities with super-popular grammar schools, such as Ripon, are regularly heralded as some of the best places to live in the entire UK. There is no doubt that grammar schools do bring benefits, for those who are clever enough to get into them, especially those with sharp-elbowed parents with the financial wherewithal to manoeuvre themselves into the right postcode.

As Labour gets into the swing of its party conference in Liverpool, His Majesty’s Opposition should not miss the chance to score huge points with such a wide open goal. Hold the government to account about the 2019 manifesto – when Boris Johnson pointedly drop-kicked rumours of reinventing grammar schools into the long grass – pointing out that if education promises can be overridden, so can anything else.

This is a danger which cannot be ignored. The new government, and its Prime Minister, should not just assume that those who voted the Tories to power in 2019 will take everything they say on the chin. There will be plenty of Conservative supporters who do agree with the idea of grammar schools, much as they also might agree with that other old chestnut that belongs in the 20th century, National Service.

Equally, there will be plenty of others who have been persuaded by the adoption of the New Labour policy on academy schools by successive Conservative governments. If academies were supposed to both give every child opportunity, regardless of any selection criteria, what do we make of this bolt-on plan to now bring in grammar schools?

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Is this saying that academies don’t work? At first glance, the GCSE results in August would suggest that perhaps they do not.

Ask any academy school leader, however, and they will point out that, especially if they’re working in areas of high deprivation, inadequate funding and huge challenges recruiting and retaining well-qualified staff need tackling by the Government first.

Labour really now has no excuse. Sir Keir Starmer and his Shadow Education Secretary, Bridget Phillipson, must get to the bottom of the great academy experiment, and really ask if grammar schools are now the answer to secondary education, are they an admission that academies have failed?