John Prescott initially opposed Tony Blair’s 2006 education reforms as he believed academies would become grammars schools under a different badge. Theresa May might be about to prove the former Deputy PM right.
‘We need to build a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged. Every child should be allowed to rise as far as their talents will take them and birth should never be a barrier’. Downing Street stated.
Such a statement should be an indication that grammar schools will remain a relic of the past. Much opposed to her speech in front of Downing Street two weeks ago the re-introduction of grammar schools would be a huge assault on social mobility.
New Labour saw attainment in numeracy and literacy soar, with the biggest leaps in the areas of highest poverty. Class sizes came down and decaying buildings that had been inherited from the Tories were replaced by new facilities. There were 32,000 more teachers and the amount of money spent per pupil doubled between 1997 and 2008.
These were real improvements – transformative – for the lives of so many parents, teachers and most importantly every pupil in Britain. Top class comprehensive education provides for every child, not just twenty five per cent, with the greatest opportunity to thrive for all. The best facilities and staff for every child, not withheld from most by a single test they took before their teens – one exam that locks them out of higher education and stigmatises them for the rest of their lives.
The way our education system works now isn’t perfect. Too many children are left behind. In 2010 nearly half of eleven year olds still left primary school without an appropriate grasp of the 3Rs. But this is no argument for bringing back yesterday’s failed system.
The majority of children let down by their schools are working class children in deprived areas – schools that are once again, under the Tories, understaffed and oversubscribed. And it should be no surprise that working class kids do disproportionately worse than middle class kids at eleven – the inequalities start early. By the age of five, working class children are on average 24 months behind their middle class counterparts in literacy. These inequalities continue up the system.
Education outcomes are not only affected by school itself, there is a much bigger picture. It is the children who live in an overcrowded home, struggling for the quiet space they need to learn, with less access to the literature and culture that appears on an 11+, that are at a disadvantage.
These are the seventy five per cent of kids that will be written off at eleven – ‘selected’ as failures for secondary moderns. Disproportionately working and lower middle class kids.
A return to the 11+ (as though we can or should know at eleven which children have the right to aspire and the ability achieve) would widen educational inequalities further. Parents who could afford private tuition and preparation for an 11+ would almost certainly pay for it. And they cannot be blamed for that. After all, every parent only wants the best for their children.
But that is the right that working class families would be denied, as their children are put at a further disadvantage.
The return of grammar schools is no social mobility agenda. Social mobility is about every man woman and child having the best chance to rise or fall regardless of their background. Not allowing a few working class kids the chance to climb a couple of rungs up the social ladder whilst keeping their peers in their place.
Re-introducing the 11+ and secondary moderns to a system in which poorer working class kids already perform worse than their middle and upper class counterparts would kick away the ladder for those who wish to climb it.
If Theresa May’s government actually care about social mobility they will end overcrowding, address the teacher recruitment crisis and increase per pupil spending, not cut it. They would improve our comprehensive schools, a system for everyone, not just the privileged few.
If they were radical, if they really wanted to make a difference, they would end the privileged tax free status of fee paying schools. They would invest the hundreds of millions that that would save in children’s centres and early intervention. They would actually improve the educational lot of working class kids and address the real problems in our system.