The Conservative government’s green paper on educational reform proposes the expansion of existing grammar schools and the opening of new ones. A study of the admissions policies of 163 grammar schools in Britain found that 90 of these schools did not consider a child's eligibility for free school meals. This is despite the disappointing fact that 3,100 of 117,000 students currently attending grammar schools come from families that are eligible for free school meals. This is below previously reported statistics and has been heavily criticized as the government plans to increase selection in the state system. Former shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, said the figures illustrated how the selection is failing those from less wealthy backgrounds. Powell stated that grammar schools have ‘shamefully low’ records of students from low-income families. Furthermore, government plans would allow existing comprehensives to be more selective, encouraging multi-academy trusts to set up ‘centres of excellence’ for students of higher ability.
Supporters of grammar school expansion say that children from low-income backgrounds are given the chance to make the most of their potential as acceptance is based on raw ability. However, critics argue that the large majority of those successful in entrance tests are the ones whose parents can afford private tutoring outside a school in preparation for 11-plus exams.
Selective education causes barriers for disadvantaged children rather than providing them with opportunities. The selective system reinforces class division and middle-class privilege. The government’s plans are trying to make new grammar schools more inclusive by deciding what proportion of children from lower income families they should admit. However, it is pivotal that the government ensures that every child, despite financial background, is receiving an excellent standard of academic education. Powell argues that the current system serves a privileged minority, and ministers should focus on ‘tackling real disadvantage’ by ensuring that schools have ample resources and enough teachers to deliver a ‘world class education for all’.
The government's green paper aspirations were given support by figures released last week that suggested that the 163 grammar schools in England had higher attainment levels than other 2,800 state secondaries. Justine Greening, Education Secretary, said that the statistics provided the government with more reason to create more of these ‘good school places in more areas’. However, Director of Education Datalab, Rebecca Allen, argues that it would be better to examine processes across the board. She is weary of ministers depending upon ‘crude’ performance tests. Key Stage 2 results fail to provide clear indication of ability; many students with low scores still pass the 11-plus exam. Allen also disregards such statistics as they fail to consider the distorting effects of those students who would have otherwise remained in private education if grammar schools were not available. She said, “About 12 per cent of those in grammars were in the private sector at the age of ten and may as well have stayed there had state-selection not been available.”
Large numbers of those who fail the 11-plus are taken out of the state system for the non-elite private schools making it difficult to assess the impact of private school transfers on local authority Progress 8 data. Hence, it is important to be careful when using ‘crude’ performance table results when making such critical decisions regarding the British education system.