Education is rarely far from the top of the news agenda. The latest big story, yet to be officially announced, is that Prime Minister Theresa May is in favour of overturning previous policy and creating more grammar schools in England, which has provoked considerable reaction and debate.
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The Government is considering the feasibility of creating more grammar schools as part of the new Prime Minister’s social mobility agenda. The government’s position and plans are likely to be presented at the Conservative Party conference in October.
What are grammar schools?
Grammar schools are state-funded selective secondary schools. Selection is based on academic ability at the age of ten by taking an examination called the 11-plus. The highest-scoring pupils become eligible to attend grammar school, whilst the remainder attend non-selective state-funded secondary modern schools.
Tony Blair’s New Labour government banned the creation of new grammar schools in 1998 and focussed instead in raising standards in comprehensive schools. A relatively small number of grammar schools still exist across the UK with counties such as Kent and Buckinghamshire selecting pupils via the 11-plus test.
Why are grammar schools controversial?
Grammar schools polarise opinion. Selection was supposed to enable the brightest pupils in the state system (as opposed to those in private education) to receive a better standard of education, so that students from traditionally poorer backgrounds could achieve well academically and thus be more likely to attend university and undertake better career opportunities than their secondary modern-educated peers. Defenders of grammar schools claim that they enable social mobility by offering a way out of poverty. Detractors say that there’s scant evidence of that, but are instead elitist and socially divisive, and point to what they see as the inherent unfairness of selecting children.
Who is in favour of grammar schools?
Whilst the bulk of former Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet were privately-educated, Theresa May's ministerial team is largely state-educated, and it’s this change in ethos that many believe has prompted a renewed interest in a return to selective state schooling. It is seen to chime in with Theresa May's pledge to, “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us,” by developing a system of social mobility from an early age. Conservative Voice, a Tory activist group, strongly supports the move, though with reservations including enabling children who develop at a later stage to benefit from a grammar school education. Education secretary Justine Greening said that she was "open-minded" about a potential return.
Who is against grammar schools?
A number of education commentators and teaching unions have not welcomed these proposals. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has previously stated that he wants "all grammars to become comprehensives" and an "end the 11-plus where it still exists," whilst Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner has said that grammar schools belong "in the dustbin of history".
Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, has stated that his party will try to block the government from passing legislation. He said: "Those who hold up grammar schools as the gold standard are less keen to talk about what happens to those children who, at the age of 11, are told they are not good enough. What does that do to a young person’s confidence and self-esteem?"
What does the public think?
A recent YouGov poll showed that only 38% of respondents wished to see the creation of more grammar schools, yet 67% would send their children to a grammar school if they passed the 11-plus. This is down on the 51% of respondents in a ComRes survey in 2015 who supported allowing new grammar schools to open.
Will new grammar schools be the same as the old?
The suggestion is that a new generation of grammar schools would differ from the previous model by tackling the criticisms most-often levelled at them by their detractors. The TES and the Telegraph have reported that any implementation of grammar schools would be (at least to begin with) on a modest scale, with an initial 20 new grammar schools being created in working class areas such as the outskirts of major cities. The schools would be expected to require a significant proportion of pupils on free school meals as part of their admissions criteria to ensure that it is low and middle-income families who benefit from the new schools. At the moment, all details remain speculation including whether the necessary changes to the law will be included in the Education for All Bill announced in the recent Queen’s Speech.
What the papers say...
What do you think?
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