The government believes that selective grammar schools can play a role in the education system but does not want to see a return to the past of mass 11-plus tests, the education secretary, Justine Greening, has told parliament.
Answering an urgent Commons question from Labour following reports that Theresa May had agreed the government should build a new wave of inclusive grammar schools, Greening confirmed that this was proposed, but gave very few details about what it might entail.
We do think selection can play a role, Greening told MPs, saying this would be part of a diverse, modern education system that would not return to the past of wholesale 11-plus exams to separate children.
It would, Greening said, be a 21st-century approach, precisely not one that’s rooted in the 1960s and 1970s.
There will be no return to the simplistic, binary choice of the past, where schools separate children into winners and losers, successes or failures, Greening said. This government wants to focus on the future.
Greening said she personally was open-minded on academic selection for schools, saying: We can’t rule anything out that could help us grow opportunity and give me more people the chance to do well in life.
She was responding to a question from her Labour counterpart, Angela Rayner, who condemned the government both for the decision and the way it was leaked to a newspaper following a private meeting of Tory MPs, rather than announced to parliament.
Rayner said the cat is finally out of the bag, over grammars, and noted a series of studies indicating that they hinder social mobility and tend to be disproportionately colonised by children from more privileged backgrounds. She also cited the opposition of the government’s social mobility tsar and the head of Ofsted.
The prime minister has said this policy is justified because we already have social selection. Quite how making things worse by bringing back grammar schools as a solution remains a mystery, Rayner said.
This policy will not help social mobility but will entrench inequality and disadvantage. It will be the lucky few who can afford the tuition that will get ahead and the disadvantaged that will be left behind. A policy for the few at the expense of the many.
Amid sometimes tough questioning from MPs, Greening was generally vague about the details of any grammar schools policies, prompting some Labour opponents to speculate that she might not wholly agree with the idea herself.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, said the plan is so flawed that it does not stand up to the most basic scrutiny.
He said: I assumed that grammar schools were the obsession of a few on the right of the Tory who party who seem to want to stop the world as they want to get off, but it seems this thinking has seeped into Number 10.
This waffly statement from the Education Secretary suggests she doesn’t really support Mrs May’s divisive plans for grammars.
The idea was also criticised by Teach First, an educational charity much praised by the government, which places graduate teachers in deprived schools.
Sam Freedman, a former education adviser to Michael Gove who is in charge of programmes for Teach First, said: The prime minister has said that she wants to create a country that works for all, but education experts are united that the evidence shows grammar schools harm social mobility.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers, meanwhile, called the plan a massive distraction from the real issues facing our education system.
May defended a return to more selective schools at a meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs late on Wednesday, to cheers from backbenchers.
We have already got selection, haven’t we – it’s called ‘selection by house price’, May said, according to those who attended, saying she wanted new selective schools to be inclusive grammars.
May was backed by her defence secretary, Michael Fallon, who said he would like to see parents given a choice of schools, including grammar schools, in every part of the country.
Fallon, in whose constituency, Sevenoaks in Kent, England’s first new grammar school for 50 years was approved last year, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the government needs to widen choice, and said parents in his constituency now had the options of academies, free schools and grammar schools.
That’s the kind of choice I want to see in every part of the country, he said. [Everywhere] should have a choice, a proper choice of good schools. Not a choice that’s passing the 11-plus and then failing it and having to go off to a sink school of the kind that has let our children down so badly.
A string of high-profile figures have warned about the implications of expanding selective schools since Wednesday. Speaking to the Guardian, Alan Milburn, the government’s social mobility tsar, said ending the ban on grammars risked creating an us and them divide.
Milburn said pupils at England’s remaining 163 selective state schools were four or five times more likely to have come from independent prep schools than poorer backgrounds.
Labour’s Ed Balls, the former education secretary, said grammar schools had led to complacency in some areas of the country.
He told Sky News: We had to intervene and ask very tough questions of schools in Kent and Gloucestershire because the attitude is: ‘We’ve got some really good grammar schools’ but the majority of children are not going to grammar schools and in some of the secondary modern schools as they were called, the results just weren’t good enough. There wasn’t enough aspiration, there wasn’t enough good teaching.
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