Already the Government’s plan to release up to £500m of public funding to set up a new generation of grammar schools has been condemned by Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner.
The Labour MP for Ashton-under-Lyne says that the policy, spearheaded by Prime Minister Theresa May, ignores the fact that millions of pupils are trapped in under-performing schools with no chance of reprieve. Many of these pupils can be found in our own region, particularly in areas of urban deprivation or rural isolation.
Against this backdrop, the Government plans to allow the establishment of an additional 110 free schools, some of which will be able to select pupils on the basis of academic ability. I agree wholeheartedly with Ms Rayner’s vehement view. While the educational trusts and groups of concerned parents forge ahead with their plans to set up schools to attract only the very cleverest, a whole generation will be left out.
I don’t much care that the Prime Minister, a former grammar school girl herself, is promising free transport to help shuttle bright kids from poor families off to the best school up to 15 miles away. It’s a nice thought, but it entirely misses the point. What this country needs are educational improvements across the board; not just for the selected few.
Only this week, the BBC highlighted the plight of hundreds of thousands of young people stuck in an endless cycle of GCSE resits. There are 20-year-olds in this country who are consistently failing to achieve a Grade C in the basic subjects of maths and English. Thanks to a policy introduced under former Education Secretary Michael Gove, it is now mandatory in most cases for “functional skills” to be achieved before full access to vocational training or a university place can be granted.
What do Mrs May and the strangely reticent Justine Greening, the current Education Secretary, propose to do about these youngsters? Colleges are already under massive pressure to provide classroom space, teaching staff and examination facilities to deal with the sheer numbers of re-sit candidates.
Unless there is a rapid revolution in standards, this situation will continue for some years yet. I cannot believe that a responsible government would preside over such a state of affairs while, at the same time, running away with itself over new grammar schools.
Surely it would make much more sense to pump resources into improving all schools? I see enough of this kind of self-selection in my own town of Barnsley. The large community college attracts a huge number of pupils because thanks to sheer force of numbers, it benefits from decent financial resources.
The outcome is relatively impressive GCSE results, which in turn impresses parents. This is good news for this particular school, but bad news for others. Too many other local secondary schools are struggling to compete and finding it hard to gain the confidence of families with exceptionally-able youngsters.
What this does is drag down standards across the town. When one school creams off the “best”, it stands to reason that the remaining schools struggle.
I’m sure my own town is not peculiar in this respect. There is already enough de facto selective education going on – abusing the catchment area criteria is rife everywhere – without making matters even more difficult.
I’ll give you an example. There are approximately 40 children in my daughter’s primary school Year Six. Every single one of these pupils – except my daughter and one boy – is going to this particular community college in September. Lizzie is instead following her brother’s footsteps to Barnsley Academy, part of United Learning, a chain encompassing both public and private sector schools.
Other parents have all but asked me if I am mad, but this school has transformed my son’s attitude and given him the academic confidence that he lacked during his primary years.
And, although I happen to believe that a smaller school is better-suited to meeting my children’s very different needs, I take a public-spirited stance. We have to invest in every school, and think in the widest terms possible. Schools are more than educational factories; they should be the building blocks of communities.
I also hear teachers’ real concerns about the inequitable state of secondary school education overall. It is already challenging enough. How will smaller schools, already struggling to pull in enough Year Sevens, compete when the playing field is even more crowded? Will these left-behind schools become the equivalent of the “bog-standard” comprehensives so roundly dismissed by every education minister and teaching expert in the world? Does the Prime Minister really want this to be her legacy? I, for one, hope not.