How many poor kids get into grammar schools is not the issue – we don’t need more divisions and segregation in our society

It would be fair to say that the decision of Theresa May to launch her premiership with calls for more selection and more faith based schooling have left the education world reeling. As yet it is not at all easy to see just what will be proposed. We’re told it won’t be a return to a simple “binary pass/fail world”. It will be a modernised 21st century form of selection – while of course still harvesting the nostalgia of many for the grammar schools of old.

It’s pretty hard to see how selection involves anything other than passing or failing. No doubt there will be attempts to make non selective schools more acceptable and the issue will be further confused by the multiplicity of different kinds of school – probably even more than we have now. For example, it seems selective schools may have to sponsor or support non selective ones. How this makes rejection from the grammar school any more palatable is hard to see.

Much of the debate has focussed around who will get into grammar schools. We know what happens now – hardly any free meal pupils get in to most grammar schools. In a few cases there has been a genuine attempt to address this.

But to focus the debate on who gets in is to miss the most fundamental issue. If every grammar school took 20% pupils on free meals, it would still be a system unfit for the 21st century. If we could design a perfect selection system that never made a mistake, it would still be the wrong thing to do. Although we can take issue with the distorted curriculum of EBacc, the ambition that says every child is entitled to all the opportunities we can offer and no one should have to put up with second rate is surely right.

The Tory vision of social mobility, as expounded by May, has always been about rescuing and promoting a few of the deserving poor while leaving the rest behind. That cannot be the Labour vision. We need to stand firm behind the principle that says not just that opportunity is for all but that we will not be satisfied until all the gaps in achievement have been closed.

The big issue in English education has not been getting high achievement at the top. It’s been the depressingly long tail of underachievement that denies young people opportunity and also holds back our society and our economy. This of course is increasingly concentrated amongst particular parts of the country and particular ethnic and social groups.

The divisions in our society are real and alarming. They are based around class, geography, race and religion in varying combinations. To enhance these divisions by building in more segregation into the education system is surely folly. Too many people feel left out already – the referendum showed that so clearly. To go out of our way to find another way of rejecting children and telling them they’ve missed out at age 11 is folly of the most extreme kind. To encourage the dividing up of children on religious grounds is not just folly – it’s seriously dangerous.

So let’s not get bogged down in a debate about how many poor kids scrape into selective schools. Let’s hang on to fundamental beliefs in inclusion and about the value of a common educational experience in which all kinds of young people learn to live and work together.

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One Comment on “How many poor kids get into grammar schools is not the issue – we don’t need more divisions and segregation in our society”

  1. bassey355 says:

    Well said, John. Your final sentence needs to be shouted from the roof tops. Of the many purposes of schooling that comprehensive schools respond to the “educational experience in which all kinds of young people learn to live and work together” is vital for the future health of the country.