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New grammar schools: what does it mean?

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This week we saw a glimpse into the government’s plan for new grammar schools. As a result, Theresa May spoke to the Conservative 1922 committee to outline her vision. But why are they back on the agenda, and what does it mean for education policy and the sector?

Education policy is changing

The possible reintroduction of grammar schools represents a marked shift in education policy as a result of the reshaping of Conservative politics.

Post-Brexit, the so called ‘Notting Hill set’ of Cameron, Osborne and Gove has been replaced. And with them, I think, will go the type of ambitious but quite technical policy, on issues like accountability, exams, and performance measures, which was such a feature of the last few years at the Department for Education. I think what we will now see is much more newspaper-friendly policy, grammar schools might well be just that kind of policy.

A lot of what Michael Gove did wasn’t about playing to the crowd in the media. No one wrote op-eds on progress 8. A lot of it was actually quite complicated, policy wonkish stuff, like assessment without levels. It wasn't designed to make mass media headlines. The post-Brexit mood, however, is calling out for big, bold measures on social exclusion. Education could be at the forefront of this, with grammar schools the first signal from government that it’s taking the Brexit vote seriously.

Theresa May’s Downing Street speech after becoming prime minister was all about healing wounds and making sure opportunity extends to the so-called ‘left behind’. We could see ‘Bold new measures to increase life chances’ type press releases coming out of the Department for Education over the next couple of years. White working class underachievement could move up the agenda as well, considering the demographics of those who voted for Brexit.

Convincing narratives often beat evidence

It’s not often that there is a policy problem where the evidence seems so over-whelmingly in favour of one side of the argument, but with grammar schools it does seem to be relatively straightforward. The evidence from the original set of grammar schools shows that few of those who attended these schools were from working class backgrounds, and those that did attend didn’t fare very well (see point five of this article from Policy Exchange). Grammar schools, of course, do much for the pupils who attend. My point is that the intake is not reflective of the current policy narrative: only 3% of pupils attending grammar schools are eligible for free school meals.

So why are they making such a comeback?

It’s a perfect example of what is increasingly obvious in public policy: evidence doesn’t trump (see what I did there) a convincing narrative.

There’s a prevalence of people in public life, mostly baby boomers, who went to grammar schools (including the PM herself) and who do so much to shape the narrative. A few loud voices, with powerful anecdotal or personal history, will often do more to shape public opinion than an impenetrable report with graphs no one can read. It’s not ludicrous to suggest that Alan Bennett’s History Boys probably has more impact on people's opinion of grammar schools than a data driven report from a think tank. Human stories people can relate to are going to hold greater sway than dry statistics.

If those against grammar schools want to shift the argument, I’d recommend telling some positive stories about how modern day comprehensives are achieving what people say grammars are best at, like getting state school pupils into Oxbridge, rather than just repeating the facts and figures.

New grammars means other reforms are on the way

Theresa May's defense will be based on the reality that the current system selects by wealth: highly performing schools drive up local house prices, thereby excluding those who can't afford to live nearby. Cabinet sources are also adamant that it will not mean a return to "sink schools" and that there will be "proper alternatives" to those who are not "suited to a purely academic grammar school education".

They're hinting at some reform of technical or vocational education. Many will be, to put it mildly, somewhat sceptical. Providing high quality alternatives to 'academic' education, like Germany provides, has been a priority in the UK for a very long time. No one has really cracked it, despite things like University Technical Colleges.

Presumably it also means that existing comprehensives will effectively become secondary moderns, or whatever the alternative is renamed, against their will. If a local school changes its admissions code so that it selects by ability, or a new grammar free school is opened, that has knock on effects for the intakes of neighbouring schools. Some pupils who may originally have attended will choose to take the 11 plus and go the new local grammar. Intakes will be reshaped to the extent that some schools will change dramatically as a result.

How ambitious will the government be in reshaping the education that non-grammars provide? Previous governments have kicked this issue into the long grass, so many people won't be holding their breath.

There will be restrictions on selection

The limited information we have suggests the policy is likely to include restrictions on when schools can become selective. The leaked memo says that new grammars will be opened, but that they will “have to follow various conditions”. It also says that existing grammars should be “reformed in ways which avoid disadvantaging those who don’t get in”.

We don’t yet know exactly what these conditions might be. My hunch is that any new grammars might have to guarantee that their intakes include the same percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) as exists locally. So if 20% of the local authority’s pupils are eligible for FSM, a new grammar has to match this in its intake.

It could also be that there are new requirements, or at least an expectation, that new grammars support other local schools, in a similar vein to some of the partnerships between independent and state schools.

Conservative supporters of grammars often argue that it doesn’t mean a wholesale return to the previous system, and this type of restriction on selection might be a way to garner more support for the policy. The government will be keen to fend off accusations that they are leaving people behind, the very problem this policy is designed to solve.

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