Christopher McGovern: A compelling case for new grammar schools

DAMIAN Hinds, the Education Secretary, has announced £50m extra funding for England's 163 surviving grammar schools. Six of these are in Yorkshire. Good news or bad?

Should more money go into grammar schools?

Since the funding is tied to increasing the number of places for children from underprivileged backgrounds, it is surely a good thing. On the other hand, would it not be fairer to spend the money on comprehensive schools since these are the schools that the vast majority of children attend?

Even though the cash involved is comparatively small, it comes as no surprise that a row has erupted.

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Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner, has described the initiative as ‘absurd’. She fully backs the view of the educational establishment that grammar schools damage social mobility.

This is a remarkable claim, since 50 years of the UK version of comprehensive schooling has given us the worst record on social mobility in the developed world. Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, admitted to this truth in a speech he made to his party conference in 2015.

Selection by academic ability at the age of 11 is a far from perfect way to divide children. I know because I was an 11-plus failure myself and only moved to grammar school at age 13. It is a much fairer system, however, than the one that replaced it – selection by house price.

If you can afford to buy a house next to a top performing comprehensive school, your child is likely to get a place. If you are forced to live in a poverty-stricken area because of a low income, your children are much more likely to end up in an under-performing school.

Opponents of grammar schools claim that academically selective schools are unnecessary because able children do just as well in comprehensive schools. Recent research from the University of Durham appears to support this claim. In terms of examination results it is true, there is little difference between children of high ability at grammar school or comprehensive school.

This is, however, exceptionally misleading – a conjuror’s sleight of hand.

Last summer a so-called ‘good’ pass in GCSE maths could be achieved with as little as 15 per cent. It, therefore, becomes very difficult to distinguish between the able, the very able and the super-able. The late Professor Stephen Hawking could not have achieved beyond an A* on GCSE Physics. This does not mean that he was at the same level of attainment as youngsters who also attained that grade.

A couple of years ago, the BBC gave a GCSE maths paper to South Korean 15-year-olds. They attained the same top grade as our brightest pupils. This did not mean, however, that the Koreans and the Brits were of the same ability. The Koreans finished the hour-long paper in 15 minutes and, suppressing their giggles, explained that GCSE was what was taught at primary school in South Korea.

Comparing standards between grammar schools and comprehensive schools on the basis of exam results is flawed when the exam does not stretch the brightest pupils and the grade boundaries are manipulated. The grammar school exam – GCE O-Level – was banned here back in 1988.

We still produce it, though, for export to Singapore, the world’s most successful education system. We replaced it with the GCSE, an all-ability exam for the UK vision of comprehensive schooling – all must have prizes!

An education system based upon comprehensive schools can work well, of course. While a hierarchy of schools is an important feature of most high-achieving education systems, they are mostly comprehensive. Our comprehensive schools might have matched theirs if we had retained the grammar school O-Level exam. Instead, we took the easy way out and dumbed down the exam system.

The announcement last summer by the head of the examinations regulator, Ofqual, that ‘all our kids are brilliant’ reflects the prevailing ideology.

How extraordinary that for all the fanfare and self-congratulation from the educational establishment about comprehensive schools, according to the OECD, the UK is the only country in the developed word where grandparents out-perform their grandchildren in terms of basic skills. These grandparents were products of the old tripartite grammar–technical-secondary modern system.

The injection of £50m for more places for under-privileged children should be welcomed. It can only ever be, however, a first step. We need hundreds more grammar schools, especially in deprived areas. The current middle-class domination of grammars is unacceptable, but inevitable, because of the lack of places.

Alongside a renaissance of grammar school education, we need a new generation of high-quality technical/vocational schools. The only argument we should be having is at what age the academic and vocational pathways open up. In my opinion it should be at age 13 or 14. Radical? Revolutionary? Hardly. It is how most high performing education systems around the world are organised.

Christopher McGovern is chairman of the Campaign for Real Education.