I once had a conversation with a senior figure from what Gove would have called “the Blob”. We were discussing the Academies Act which was about to eviscerate the remains of locally accountable schools. He sighed, and said “This, not for the first time, is where Blairism comes back to bite us on the arse“.
I have no doubt (I was there in the DFE, after all), that the very first academies were not created with the intention of destroying a system of local state schooling which had stood for a century, and replacing it with unaccountable private companies being gifted all our schools so that they might take control of the state education budget in an educational “marketplace”. Yet that’s where academization led.
Some might say it’s the Law of Unintended Consequences. Well-meaning people creating circumstances in which Bad Things(tm) they never intended can happen. Every one of the examples of petty greed, related-party corruption, and inflated salaries now emerging from the academized system is a direct consequence of decisions taken when the Academy policy was actually simply an attempt to hit Restart on a handful of local sink schools.
But I’ve covered all that before, and that’s not what this short blog is about. This is about how similarly well-meaning people have created the circumstances for the return of a policy most of them are genuinely appalled by: grammar schools and selective education.
When the likes of Sam Freedman, ex-Govian advisor, ex-Policy Exchange and now Teach First, argues against selection and Grammar schools, I have no doubt that he is sincere. I’m even willing – up to a point – to accept that Gove himself may not have been an active supporter of Grammar schools. The Policy Exchange think tank, while fully supporting the privatisation and marketisation of education, has not, to my knowledge, ever supported the return of grammar schools. Yet the policies they have pursued have created the perfect conditions for the return of selection.
Free Schools have promoted the idea that schools should be established in response to parental demand, rather than in response to local need. As a result, we’ve seen the creation of not just a lot of new schools in areas which didn’t need new schools, but many of these schools have been selective. Selective, that is, in terms of religion, gender or “ethos”. Some of the most high-profile ones have actually trumpeted their “private school ethos” (institutions which are, of course, incredibly selective), even if they purport not to actually select. A demand-led marketplace has replaced locally planned provision. A demand for a selective Free School would be entirely in line with this policy.
Making Academies into their own admissions authorities has created a situation which already exists of de-facto selection. There are a variety of ways in which academies already select, usually by raising economic barriers to entry, such as pricey school uniforms, or “aptitude” in expensive hobbies. Another form of de facto selection, although some will hotly deny this, is a “my way or the highway” ‘No Excuses’ discipline policy which leads to rapid exclusion (or self-exclusion) of less pliable/more challenging students for minor offences. You might also search “grammar stream” on google, and sit open-mouthed as you read through the apparently endless list of non-selective schools who are using this phrase to promote themselves to parents. The concept of separating children by ability is back, open, and the terminology is commonly being used as a positive selling point in academies. None of these are as full-on as an actual 11+ exam, but the precedent has been set that individual schools should be allowed to manipulate their admissions to target the richer, more able, and better behaved, three categories which tend to overlap somewhat. And that children should be separated by ability even within the same school. Not setting, but streaming. Internal grammar schools. Well if we think that’s fine, a full building separation is hard to argue against.
Testing has been elevated into the only measure of success. This didn’t begin with Gove, of course. But he’s supercharged it. The risible Primary testing chaos and the chaotic GCSE and A-Level changes have each come with a public emphasis on the primacy of test results as a way of measuring students, teachers and schools. Test results are so important that they dictate everything from teachers’ pay from year to year, to which company gets to own your local school when the franchise is transferred after a school misses arbitrary floor targets. One argument Sam Freedman was pushing this morning, quite rightly, was that it’s ridiculous to separate children based on exam results at 11, because exams can be badly marked, kids can have an off-day, the results aren’t necessarily reflective of anything. All true. And all completely negated by the opposite message which has been pushed hard into every aspect of education policy by the Govians since 2010. Try telling a grammar school fan that testing is sufficiently robust to fairly destroy adults’ careers, but not sufficiently robust to fairly divide 11-year-olds into different schools. Good luck with that.
The “American Dream” culture which has permeated our discourse of education is also helping Grammar schools along the way. I’ve written about this in connection to the Growth Mindset debate. If one takes the view that there is no such thing as “ability” playing a significant role in outcomes, then everyone’s results become “deserved”. This is the sort of culture which sees less able children humiliated publicly by having their comparative results displayed on school walls for their peers to laugh at. Those children “deserve” that humiliation, because they didn’t work hard enough. Anyone could have done better if only they’d tried, and the kids at the top deserve the plaudits. Well, welcome to grammar schools. One argument against Grammars is that they give even more advantages to those who already start the race with rocket boosters, while disadvantaging those who start by wearing lead shoes. But in our culture of “everyone can be a winner if they only try hard enough”, it is entirely consistent to argue – as grammar school supporters do – that the kids who will get into the grammars are more deserving than those who are left behind. Those others deserve their fate – the lazy losers.
Educational nostalgia is running rampant. The message from the top has been very clear: we shall prepare for the future by returning to the past. By emphasising the sort of curriculum which promotes what its adherents like to think of as an established body of valuable knowledge, while scoffing at “skills” and scrapping applied and vocational courses, Govians have planted their flag firmly in the 1950s. They will protest that they intend this “grammar school education” for all students in every school. But when Wilshaw dribbles on about students standing when the teacher enters, Seldon recommends House systems as an answer to inner-city challenges, and headteachers are lauded by DFE for imposing uniform policies which make our kids look as if they’re watching Spitfires duel with Messerschmitts, the message is very clear: 1950s Grammar schools are the exulted model. One can hardly blame shire Tories for hearing the message that it’s time to reject pale imitations, and go for the real thing again.
Govians take aim at eliminating selection
And finally, we now have an organisational school structure which allows Academy Trusts to get around legislation preventing the establishment of more grammars. Enter, stage Far Right, Multi-Academy Trusts. The current structure of MATs, in which schools lose their legal identity and become simply local branches of the MAT, already allows the establishment of de-facto Grammar schools. The MAT (as long as it isn’t already selective) theoretically has a duty not to become selective. However, a geographically concentrated MAT can admit students of all abilities, but choose to educate children of different abilities on different sites. This is already happening. And if one doesn’t think that the legislation is flexible enough to allow that, I’d merely point out the new Grammar school already opened by an Academy as an “extension”, in a different town some 10 miles away. You’d be surprised how flexible legislation can be when all the power is concentrated in the hands of the Secretary of State, and all other power centres like LEAs have been castrated.
There are, of course, plenty of perfectly valid arguments which remain against Grammar schools. They’re a terrible idea, and I’m sure those arguments will continue to be made. However, I don’t know if anyone’s noticed recently, but there’s quite a lot of evidence knocking about that when people come up against arguments – even hard, cold facts – which contradict what they want to believe, then those arguments and facts are no more than pebbles of reason thrown at a panzer of belief. And so it will be with supporters of Grammar schools. Nothing will shake their belief that Grammars “save bright working-class children”. Nothing will shake their belief that their own child will always go to the grammar, and not the secondary modern. Nothing will shake their belief that grammars were responsible for social mobility in the 1950s and 1960s. None of these things are true, but nor was it true that Brexit would give us £350m for the NHS, or that EU immigrants were responsible for terrorism.
Gove, and those who pushed his policies, have created the perfect conditions for grammar schools to make their return. Culturally, legally and structurally. All that is required is the political will. Does that exist?
This blog, and the discussion about Grammar schools today on Twitter was prompted by a Telegraph article suggesting 100 Tory MPs are taking advantage of May’s Cultural Conservative faction’s eclipse of Cameron’s more Liberal Conservative faction, to lobby for the return of Grammar schools. Some have said already that it’s only 100 MPs. But just as with Brexit, the Tory Party is the spiritual home of beliefs which aren’t supported by evidence, especially if you throw in a bit of nostalgia. Grammar schools are as popular with Tory members as Brexit was. When Morgan approved the new Sevenoaks Grammar, it’s inconceivable that she would have done so if there was any majority opposition to it from within her party. She approved it because it would be very popular with the majority of her party. The political will is already there.
Selection by ability at eleven years old is coming back. It’ll be here faster than you might think. And the stinking policy field in which it will sprout was manured by the some of the very people who are now most appalled at the prospect.
Folks, this is where Govianism comes back to bite you on the arse.
What’s that, you say? It’s my own arse I’ve bitten?