A New Wave of Grammar Schools to be Built?

New Secretary for Education open to lifting the ban on new grammar schools in England

The newly appointed Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, has recently announced that she is “open minded” about the possible creation of new grammar schools in England: and she isn’t alone in her thoughts. Over 100 Conservative MPs are pledging their support for the idea. According to the Telegraph the charge is led by ‘Tory activist group’ Conservative Voice, founded in 2012 by Liam Fox and David Davis, both of whom were appointed to Cabinet positions in the latest reshuffle.[1] Campaigners “believe now is their best chance” to overturn Tony Blair’s 1998 ban on the creation of any new grammar schools, especially with supporters in such high places. Such a contentious issue no doubt has no simple answers; but what are the facts? Are grammar schools good for the education system as a whole? And why is this announcement so controversial?

Grammar schools and the law

Grammar schools are a distinct type of secondary school in Britain that admit only chosen pupils who are able to pass an entry exam known as the 11-plus. Currently, out of the three thousand state secondary schools in England, only 163 of these are grammar schools.[2] Once upon a time, they were far more popular; in the mid-1950s, there were over 1,200 grammar schools in England, and a popular choice for parents who wanted their child to get ahead in life. However, this figure took a sharp nosedive beginning in the 1960s, when politicians began worrying that this kind of “selective” education reinforced the barriers of the class system in England, and strongly favoured the wealthier of our citizens. Grammar schools began being phased out in 1965 in favour of a more all-inclusive schooling system.[3]

Under the Labour government in 1998, Prime Minister Tony Blair enacted a law banning any new grammar schools from opening in England, and that law has yet to be challenged.[4] Though individuals such as Boris Johnson have gone on record in the past few years advocating the reintroduction of grammar schools[5], David Cameron refused to repeal the ban during his time as Prime Minister, and nothing came of it. Thus, grammar schools in England until recently were in danger of becoming a thing of the past, though certain institutions have managed to find a loophole in the law: by labelling new grammar school buildings as “extensions” of existing schools, it is perfectly legal to construct them. An example of this is the Weald of Kent School in Tonbridge, which used the rule to open a new grammar school site over nine miles away from the main school.[6]

The start of a new era for selective schooling?

It is now beginning to appear that Theresa May’s reign as Prime Minister, which began on 13th July this year, may bring with it the reintroduction of selective schooling as government policy in England. May, having attended a grammar school herself in her youth, openly supports selective schooling and in the past has publicly backed the expansion of a grammar school in her constituency of Maidenhead.[7] One conservative MP reportedly remarked that we have “every reason to feel hopeful that the new Prime Minister will lift the ban”, and that May’s doing so would be a reflection of “her commitment to social mobility”.[8] Nick Timothy, May’s newly appointed Chief of Staff at Downing Street, is also vocally in favour of grammar schools, and does not understand “why we have a fairly arbitrary rule saying that they can’t open them”.

On 14th July, May appointed Justine Greening to the cabinet position of Secretary of State for Education, a woman who worked as an accountant before entering the House of Commons in 2005.[9] Greening is one of few education secretaries who did not attend a selective school in her youth; despite this, she is also in favour of repealing the ban on grammar schools. Appearing on the Andrew Marr Show on 17th July, Greening discussed her openness to scrapping the ban on grammar schools, claiming that we need to “work out where they fit in today’s landscape”.[10] She acknowledged that schooling in Britain has changed from being a “binary world” to an environment in which “many different schools” thrive, and called the debate around grammar schools “old fashioned”.

Rather sensibly, Greening did acknowledge that she would not “make some big sweeping policy announcement” after only having been education secretary for a few days, and plans to “take a very measured, sensible approach” to the debate. However, within days of her statement, the Tory activist group Conservative Voice announced that they will soon be formally re-launching their campaign to remove the ban on new grammar schools.[11]They cited Greening as their inspiration for the move, and claimed that more than 100 conservative MPs will be backing it.

A controversial topic: Favouring the wealthy?

We now must ask, what will the future hold for schooling in Britain if this ban is lifted, and will it necessarily be a rosy one? An article in the International Business Times this week claims that increasing the number of grammar schools in England will be “bad news for poorer kids”; only the wealthiest families will be able to send their children to the better schools, and this will widen the social divide in the country.[12] A recent study found that children from poorer backgrounds have a less than 10% chance of getting into a grammar school, whilst those from wealthier families have more than a 50% chance.[13] Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron recently suggested that Theresa May should “start by ensuring our schools are properly funded and teachers are better supported” before opening new ones, and this may indeed be the wisest route to take.[14]

However, the founder of Conservative Voice, Don Porter, claims that scrapping the ban on new grammar schools will actually contribute to increasing social mobility, rather than hindering it.[15] He insists that if the government do repeal the ban, they should ensure that “entry to [grammar schools] is as fair as possible especially for people from less affluent backgrounds”. Campaigners will apparently suggest that the first twenty new grammar schools are built in “socially deprived areas”, in order to give “bright youngsters from some of the most disadvantaged communities” a chance to attend. Indeed, it does seem that approaching the issue from a more inclusive angle than was seen years ago during the heyday of selective schools is key to overcoming class boundaries rather than solidifying them.

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/23/100-tory-mps-back-scrapping-the-ban-on-new-grammar-schools/

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-34538222

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-34538222

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-36820097

[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/borisjohnson/11223101/Scrapping-grammar-schools-was-a-real-tragedy-for-Britain-Boris-Johnson-says.html

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/jul/18/justine-greening-grammar-schools-selection

[7] http://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/690205/Theresa-May-back-wave-new-grammar-schools-across-England

[8] http://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/690205/Theresa-May-back-wave-new-grammar-schools-across-England

[9] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-36793920

[10] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3694481/Ban-grammar-schools-lifted-new-Education-Secretary-Justine-Greening-says-s-open-minded-selective-state-schools-Theresa-keen-too.html

[11] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/23/100-tory-mps-back-scrapping-the-ban-on-new-grammar-schools/

[12] http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/grammar-schools-are-back-agenda-thats-bad-news-poorer-kids-1572426

[13] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-36662965

[14] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2016/07/17/justine-greening-open-minded-about-more-grammar-schools/

[15] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/23/100-tory-mps-back-scrapping-the-ban-on-new-grammar-schools/