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.


Achieving social mobility is hard – schools can’t do it on their own

At the recent Teach First conference ( Alan Milburn – our social mobility Tsar – claimed that “it will be impossible to make progress in improving social mobility until the educational attainment gap between less well-off and better-off children is closed. Our future success in a globally competitive economy relies on using all of our country’s talent not just some of it.”

Now no one would deny that the gap between the educational performance of disadvantaged pupils and the rest is unacceptable. One of the most noticeable features of English education when compared with other countries is our long tail of underachievement.

But his analysis breaks down in two ways. First, his proposals for closing the gap assume that it can be done by a bit more tinkering with the educational system. A new performance measure. Sack a few more heads. Let a few teachers off their student loans. Set a new target and give Ofsted something new to beat schools up over.

Some of these proposals are extraordinarily muddled – so for example

Scrap tuition fees for teacher training and provide housing support for existing teachers who work in the worst schools in disadvantaged areas. If these are really the worst schools, why would we want to keep and reward the current teachers? Or is “worst” really a synonym for disadvantaged. If so it is really saying something worrying about his assumptions.

The lowest performing 20% of schools to be given intensive support or have wholesale change in leadership if they continue to fail. Unfortunately basic maths says there will always be a lowest performing 20%. Improve some and others will fall into the 20%. And anyway, by what measure will the 20% be identified – something that has baffled educational statisticians for many years.

There is nothing here about educational fundamentals – nothing about the crisis in teacher supply or in teacher morale. Or about the disastrous testing and exam regime imposed by Gove and Morgan. Or about the socially selective admissions system that you find in much of the country. Or about the continued existence of the privileged private school sector.

But even more importantly, he totally ignores issues in our wider society outside education. Nothing about poverty wages, insecure employment, inadequate housing, food banks and all the rest. If children have parents who are seeing their living standards driven down as an act of deliberate policy, they are not likely “to be ready to compete in the modern labour market”.

To pretend that fiddling with school performance measures will counter-balance all this is frankly disgraceful – a cynic would say it’s simply a way of avoiding having to think about what inequality is really like in our country.

There is however an even more fundamental issue. According to Milburn, education is meant to bring about social mobility. This assumption demonstrates a fundamental failure to understand how social mobility works – or doesn’t.

There are basically two ways in which social mobility can work. Sometimes – as in the 1950’s and 1960’s – there is structural change in the labour market which opens up opportunities for some people to move into a different kind of job from their families. The expansion of higher education created opportunities that had not been there before in order to provide the growing demand for professional and “white collar” employment. But there is much less of this in today’s labour market, especially where “middling” craft and admin jobs are increasingly disappearing.

The second way is if there is movement both up and down the class system – a genuine meritocracy. Social mobility is not just about moving up – it has to involve going down too. Making this happen is incredibly difficult. The already privileged have very many ways of making sure that it will not be their children who move down.

Achieving a meritocracy is made harder in our society by the extraordinarily unequal rewards offered for different jobs. For a child from a professional family to move into a non-professional job involves a huge hit in potential income and even more in social status. We don’t value trade and craft skills. And anyone working in an unskilled job can expect insecurity and bullying at a wage that can’t support a family. If this is what downward mobility looks like, don’t expect to see it happen any time soon.

So, no, social mobility will not be brought about by tinkering with the performance tables or by blaming schools in disadvantaged areas for supposed failure. Genuine educational reform can make a dent in the issue and can enable more young people to have some better opportunities. But in the end real social mobility will only happen if we have a more equal society which really values every kind of work and contribution.


Education needs a fresh start from May- time to clear up the DfE’s mess

The last month has seen events in British politics move at a pace that is probably unprecedented. At times just keeping up has felt like a full time occupation. So this blog has been rather quiet as other issues have taken priority.

But as we approach the formation of a new government, it is an appropriate moment to look at the DfE agenda and perhaps identify some things that current ministers have mismanaged or ignored and which new ministers (if that is what we get) need to pay attention to.

It so happens that in the last few days, a number of issues have been brought into sharp perspective through the publication of research and through just the press of events:


There have been three reports on the performance of multi-academy trusts. They come from the DfE itself, the Sutton Trust and the Education Policy Institute (chaired by Lib Dem ex minister David Laws). They agree that at the very least MATs are no more effective than local authorities. A few are effective – as Sir Michael Wilshaw told the Select Committee, he could find half a dozen good ones – but no more. It’s clear than many trusts are not effective. The EPI’s first recommendation is very straightforward – “ditch full academisation as a policy in favour of ensuring all pupils are in a good school”.

At the same time, another of Gove’s superheads bit the dust. Durand Trust received a notice threatening termination unless it sorted out the massive conflicts of interest in its structure. In particular its founder, Greg Martin, is required to sever all links with the trust and its schools. Durand’s reaction – it is seeking legal advice!

Teacher Shortages

TheTeachers’ Pay Review body’s report – massively overdue – has highlighted the growing crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. It told ministers that they must be prepared to pay teachers more in future years recognising a continuing decline in teachers’ earnings compared to other professions.

At the same time the workforce census data showed 10% of teachers leaving the profession last year and almost a quarter leaving within three years of qualifying. The latter is the worst figure since records began in 1996.


The first results of KS2 tests under the new curriculum and testing arrangements were published. Just 53% of pupils reached the expected standard. So almost half the population have been labelled as failures at age 11. And to rub it in, one outcome is that many thousands of pupils will start their secondary school career faced with re-taking their KS2 tests. It is hard to imagine anything more likely to cause disillusionment at just the time when pupils should be excited by the new opportunities opening up in secondary school.


A petition regretting the exclusion of arts and technology subjects from the EBacc was debated in Westminster Hall. The crisis in design and technology was a particular feature with just 40% of teacher training places being taken up. When asked to justify the privileged position of history and geography, Nick Gibb responded that “we believe it is important that young people learn the skills of writing essays”.

The new Chief Inspector

The nominee for the post of HMCI, Amanda Spielman, suffered the unusual fate of being rejected by the Education Select Committee. Nicky Morgan has said she will override this decision. A lot of the great and good have rallied round emphasising her management qualities and arguing that she would be very different from Wilshaw. The committee was accused of hankering after a male and macho style of leadership.

It is true that to have a numerate Chief Inspector and one less inclined to give vent to personal prejudices would be no bad thing. But we are asked to have an HMCI who would not be qualified to participate herself in an inspection in any part of her sprawling empire. The tone of her session at the select committee was set by her first answer:

Chair: “Why do you want to be Her Majesty’s chief inspector?”

Amanda Spielman:  “Why? It is a bit of a “mountain” answer: because it’s there. It is something that is incredibly important in the system and that cannot be approached  simplistically. It is not a routine thing that you simply have to point in a certain direction and off it goes. It needs understanding of education; understanding of large and complex systems and how they evolve and need to be steered over time; understanding of Government and the pressures on Government; and understanding a big and complex profession. It brings it all together in a very exciting way. It is a challenge that I couldn’t resist.”

I don’t think it’s asking too much to think that the answer could have included something about making a difference for children. Frankly you’d expect better from a candidate for a head of department job in a school. And in this case it didn’t get better. But she’s probably going to get the job unless a new Secretary of State takes a different view.

So there a lot of chickens coming home to roost. We can only hope that we will see some changes at the DfE and that a new team will recognise how much needs doing and how misguided much of current policy is.

But then we remember that Teresa May supported the proposal for a grammar school annex in her constituency of Maidenhead ……. groans ….



It’s time to phase out elitist education

The author of this piece, Steve Longden, is an experienced teacher and has worked as an Equality Policy manager in local government in Greater Manchester. He is a member of Altrincham and Sale CLP

A resolution based on this article will be debated at the SEA Annual Conference on 25th June. Details and booking arrangements can be found at

Any right predicated on wealth should not be allowed to supersede the right to equality of opportunity

Much has been said in recent years about increasing inequality in the UK and the crucial role that improving state education has in addressing this problem. Far less has been said about actively addressing the inequalities sustained by private and grammar schools.

I am an experienced teacher, new Labour Party and NUT member. I intend to submit a policy proposal to the party, explaining why I believe private and grammar schools should be phased out. Any Labour Party members who would like to support the proposal are welcome to join this policy campaign group:

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s 2014 examination of who gets the top jobs in Britain today found ‘elitism so stark that it could be called ‘Social Engineering’’. Private schools, educating 7 per cent of the nation’s pupils, provide:

  • 71 per cent of senior judges
  • 62 per cent of senior armed forces officers
  • 55 per cent of permanent secretaries
  • 53 per cent of senior diplomats
  • 50 per cent of members of the House of Lords
  • 45 per cent of public body chairs
  • 44 per cent of the Sunday Times Rich List
  • 43 per cent of newspaper columnists
  • 36 per cent of the Cabinet
  • 35 per cent of the national rugby team
  • 33 per cent of MPs
  • 33 per cent of the England cricket team
  • 26 per cent of BBC executives and
  • 22 per cent of the Shadow Cabinet.

Furthermore, a disproportionate amount of UK government spending on schools goes to the private sector. For example, in 2009 the OECD revealed (through its routine statistical publications) that the UK diverted a larger share of government education spending (25.1 per cent) to a tiny proportion of privately educated children (7 per cent) than almost any other rich nation.

In the state sector, ‘less than 3 per cent of students attending grammar schools are eligible for free school meals, whereas the average proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals in selective areas is 18 per cent’.

This disparity is caused by wealthier parents pushing up house prices in the catchment areas of grammar schools, in an effort to increase the chances of their children gaining places. Grammar school head teachers point to the use of private tutors who coach children to pass entrance tests. Over four times as many children are admitted to grammar schools from the private school sector than children on free school meals.

In December 2015 the Commission reported that, ‘despite many welcome initiatives, the current policy response – by educators and employers as much as governments – falls well short of the political ambition. The gap between rhetoric and reality has to be closed’.

Unfortunately, by failing to address the inequity of private education in any of its policy recommendations the Commission has fallen short of addressing one of the greatest causes of social immobility and elitism in the nation.

Perhaps the British public’s love of ‘choice’ when deciding how to spend their hard earned money argues against the phasing out of private and grammar schools? These survey results suggest otherwise:

  • When asked in the 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey,’should the quality of education be the same for all children, or should parents who can afford it be able to pay for better education’, 61 per cent of respondents thought it should be the same for all children.
  • 2013 research by YouGov found that 78 per cent of the public in Great Britain thinks that ‘it should be the government’s job to ensure that rich and poor children have the same chances’.

The existence of private and grammar school social engineering is reason enough to phase them out. However, those who buy their services console themselves with arguments that help them to justify their continued use. The most common of these arguments are outlined and challenged here:

  • The state’s comprehensive system encourages mediocrity.
    Qualified teachers are fully aware of the importance of meeting the needs of each student in their classroom. The set of techniques employed by teachers to ensure this is called ‘differentiation’.  In order for a teacher in the state sector to be judged as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ they must demonstrate their effective use, including stretching and challenging the most able students.
  • Abolishing private and grammar schools would mean the most affluent would simply create their own ‘elite’ within the state system.
    This very real phenomenon can be addressed by ensuring that any school judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted be required to reserve places equivalent to the percentage of students eligible for free school meals within their local authority. This would ensure that wealthier families moving into the catchment areas to access these schools would not prevent social mobility amongst the area’s poorest students.
  • What really matters is class size!
    In 2011 The Department for Education reported that the evidence base on the link between class size and attainment showed that a smaller class size did have a positive impact on attainment and behaviour in the early years of school. However, it also showed that this effect tends to be small, and diminishes after a few years. This finding is also supported by The Sutton Trust’s research on the effects of class size on pupil performance. Furthermore, Hattie (2009), Rivkin et al (2005) and Hanushek (2011) all argue that increasing teacher effectiveness creates much greater value for money than reducing class sizes.

After three decades of rising wealth inequalities and with clear evidence from the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission about the negative impact private schools are having on social mobility, now is the time to expose the assumption that ‘choosing’ private education or using wealth to access schooling is a fundamental right.

I recommend that the Labour Party should adopt the following policies:

  • Turn all private and grammar schools into non-fee paying, non-selective state schools over a period of five to 10 years. This can be done gradually starting with each school’s youngest intake.
  • Within its first five-year term, increase government spending per child to at least the higher North West European average.
  • Any government funded school judged to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted should have a legal duty to reserve places equivalent to the percentage of students eligible for free school meals in the local authority, including such students residing outside the school’s catchment area.

Surely, any right predicated on wealth should not be allowed to supersede the right to equality of opportunity.


SEA AGM and Annual Conference 25th June 2016

The SEA AGM and Annual Conference will be held at Student Central (formerly the University of London Union, Malet Street London, WC1E 7HY on Saturday 25th June 2016. The AGM will begin at 10.00 and the Conference will run from 11.00 am to 5 pm.

Members and supporters of SEA are welcome at the conference.

The conference will focus on three themes:

Issues arising from The Education White Paper which include mass academisation and the undermining of parental involvement in schools, threats to the professionalism and the working conditions of school staff and the growth of inequality in education.

Higher Education which, with rather less publicity, is also threatened by the government’s dogmatic adherence to marketization.

How SEA can develop alternatives – at the early stage in the parliamentary cycle, SEA needs to identify key areas where new thinking is needed and how we can influence the national policy making process

 As speakers to the conference we will be welcoming:

  • Mary Bousted, General Secretary of ATL
  • John Holmwood, Campaign for the Public University and Professor of Sociology at University of Nottingham
  • Liz Lawrence, President of UCU
  • Jules Pipe, Mayor of Hackney
  • Sorana Vieru NUS Vice-President (Higher Education)
  • Catherine West MP (Hornsey and Wood Green)

The conference will also consider resolutions submitted by SEA members.

The cost to attend the conference is £25 waged and £15 unwaged. This includes lunch.

You can book a place by e mail to . Payment can be made on the day.

In order to confirm arrangements including catering it is important we know who is coming and that members book in good time.


Academisation is still the DfE agenda – there is no U turn

The DfE may indeed be just about the most inept department in Whitehall when it comes to actually running anything. But no one can deny that its superb at spin. Their ability to persuade the media that black is really white never ceases to impress.

Just a few weeks ago it published the notorious White Paper “Education Excellence Everywhere”. At its heart was delivery on the pledge made by Cameron and Osbourne to achieve total academisation and to end the local authority role in the school system. As is often the case with this government, they don’t seem to have seen the storm coming. Tory councils were outraged and backbenchers queued up to condemn the proposals.

So on the day after the local elections, out comes the news – U turn – compulsory academisation abandoned – panic over – everyone can calm down and forget all about it.

But in reality this was a brilliant example of how to get the media almost universally looking in the wrong direction. Claims of victory for the opponents of academisation fed into that narrative but were sadly misjudged. In reality, the destination is unchanged – only the route to it has been tweaked. It is still the case that:

  • Under the Education and Adoption Act all schools found to be inadequate by Ofsted will be made academies (except of course many of them are already!)
  • Under the same Act, “coasting” schools can be made into academies
  • All schools in underperforming LA’s will be made into academies
  • All schools in LAs where a lot of schools are already academies will be forced down that route.

On the Local Schools Network, Henry Stewart has looked at which local authorities will be affected by the last two proposals – see It seems likely to be a nakedly political process designed to pacify Tory local authorities and small rural schools.

But, make no mistake – there is no change in the objective and the reprieve for the Hampshire’s and Oxfordshire’s will only be short term. Sooner or later they will be in the firing line.

These proposals will require legislation so there is the opportunity to build resistance around the parliamentary process

On 25th May at 6.00 pm, SEA with its partners in the Reclaiming Education Alliance, is holding a meeting in the House of Commons to help to do just that. Speakers will include Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT. Details of the meeting and how to book your place are here:

It’s really important to show we are not taken in by the DfE’s mind games. So if you possibly can, do come to this meeting and help plan the campaign against these proposals.

As the White Paper falls apart, Labour needs to come up with a new settlement for schools.

The proposals in the recent White Paper seem to be falling apart at a quite remarkable speed. As Tory local authorities and backbenchers queue up to condemn its plans for complete academisation, we hear that the DfE is frantically searching for some alternative that it can claim is not a wholesale U turn.

At education questions today, Morgan and Gibb responded with their usual flannel about devolving decision making to the front line and with their usual dodgy statistics. They did however come out with a new one (to me anyway). Schools must become academies so they can share their good practice with others. I have to say it is news to me that local authority schools are forbidden to work with other schools but if the Secretary of State says so, it must be true …. I suppose….

The latest suggestion, in the press today, is to allow “good local authorities” to form their own multi-academy trusts. Despite Osborne and Cameron asserting that the days of local authority control of schools will be over. And despite the fact that being an academy chain would give a local authority far more power than they’ve had since 1988 – the power to appoint all the staff, to set budgets and hold back any money they like all without being bothered by annoying governors.

But much of the criticism of the White Paper is of the “I’ve nothing against academies; it’s the compulsion I don’t like”. That is something that needs challenging. One thing the government is right about is that having two entirely different systems for running schools makes no sense. But their answer is the wrong one. The academy model is fundamentally flawed because:

  • There is no evidence that academies do any better than maintained schools.
  • Schools should be rooted in and accountable to their local communities. This is not just about “throwing out the rascals” at elections. It’s about taking decisions close to the communities that are affected and having schools governed by representatives of that community not by remote sponsors or civil servants.
  • Academies involve more bureaucracy not less. Every school has an individual legal contract with the DfE and has to comply with charity law and company law. It has to manage its own HR, health and safety, accountancy, audit, purchasing and compliance with a myriad of regulations and instructions from government.
  • The so-called academy freedoms are illusory. All headteachers are free to manage their schools – including staffing and budgets – as they see fit within the law. All schools, including academies, are constrained in terms of the curriculum by the demands of testing and examinations. Increasingly governments have imposed through legislation additional duties and constraints on academies.
  • Academy chains are private organisations concerned fundamentally about their own success and survival rather than the interests of pupils and families. So, schools are moved between chains and chains close down or merge without any reference to the communities they supposedly serve
  • Central government can’t supervise thousands of schools from the centre. This has become increasingly apparent and has been pointed out by both the select committee and the Public Accounts Committee.
  • As a result the scope for abuse has been huge. We have seen financial scandals, excessive exclusions, abuse of curriculum freedoms, manipulation of admissions, refusal to accept pupils with SEN and self-aggrandisement by empire-building headteachers. Not everywhere but on too many occasions to be acceptable.

It’s great fun to watch Tory plans falling apart. But that’s not enough. We’ve said we want to restore local accountability. We’ve said we want schools to be able to focus on teaching and learning rather than unnecessary bureaucracy. We’ve said we want proper planning of school places and fair admissions.

So it’s time that Labour began to argue for a new settlement that applies to all schools and:

  • Gives local authorities the responsibility and the power to plan school provision in their area, to ensure fair access for all and to monitor both standards and compliance with the proper standards of public life.
  • Empowers individual schools, frees them from the central control of academy chains and enables them to develop their own ways of working together while ensuring that all schools have the support that they need.
  • Gets rid of the absurd and incompetent bureaucracy of the Education Funding Agency, funding agreements, limited companies and charitable status, replacing it with a simple consistent model of public service governance and regulation
  • Ensures that the voice of parents and local communities is heard in all schools.
  • Gives schools as much freedom as possible consistent with meeting the needs of all their pupils and their whole community.
  • Establishes a consistent structure of national regulation that applies to all schools.

This would be a solution that will put behind us the absurd battles over school structures. There is of course the argument that structures don’t matter and you can find good teaching anywhere. But actually bad structures get in the way. They waste time, energy and money. They make the system less fair. They cause fragmentation when the need is for collaboration and planning. They enable teachers to work effectively and local people to have a stake in their children’s schooling. The reality is, if structures aren’t right, standards won’t be either.