Crosland’s ambition was never fully realised. Like the Celtic tribes that resisted Roman occupation, or the handful of monasteries that survived the dissolution, 164 grammars remain as an affront to the new order of enforced egalitarianism. And, glory be, for the first time in 50 years there may soon be a new one.Meanwhile, opponents of grammar schools believe that the Sevenoaks move was enough to suggest that Ed Miliband and Stephen Twigg should launch all-out war on the system through their academy funding agreements. Fiona Millar in the Guardian today fulminated at Michael Gove's 'sneakiness'.
Now the coalition's devious use of the school admissions code – introduced by Labour to bring more fairness to the system – will allow popular schools to expand without constraint or consultation. Plans for annexes to existing grammar schools have quickly surfaced and there is little to stop these "satellites" popping up all over the country. Belief in an elite education system runs like a deep blue vein through the Conservative party...... This sneaky last-minute change to the admissions code, made after consultation had closed, shows how superficial Cameron's Tory modernisation really is.In truth, no last minute change to the admissions code was needed to allow an existing grammar school to expand. In fact, under Labour, the number of students in grammar schools increased by nearly 30,000 from 128,000 to 158,000 between 1997-2010, because it was never the Government's intention to prevent existing grammar schools from expanding. Rather the policy (underpinned by 2008 regulations) was to stop new grammars being established while insisting on parental ballots where there was a desire to end existing selection in a school or an area.
In reality, evidence in this whole debate is too often dependent on prejudice. Grammar schools score highly in league tables because they have a strong intake. A fair comparison would be with the top 25% of students in comprehensive schools, not their whole intake. And in those circumstances, the results prove pretty similar.
Where today's grammar schools score particularly poorly is on social mobility. Professor David Jesson has shown that it is a myth that grammars are true agents of social mobility: only 2% of their students are eligible for free school meals, well below the 15% national average when he did his calculations. His conclusion is that:
Out of an annual national cohort of 22,000 pupils entering Grammar schools, well under 500 of these are from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds. If these schools did offer ‘a ladder of opportunity’ to pupils in their areas we might have expected well over 2500 in this category.
This is undoubtedly a problem in wholly selective areas like Kent where poorly performing secondary moderns find it harder to compete, and where there have been a higher than average number of failing schools as a result. At the same time, since it is a wholly selective system in the county, parents whose children pass the 11+ will prefer a local to a distant grammar school, and it is hard logically to argue that those who bus children to selective schools in the county must continue to do so.
Yet the political reality for both Labour and the Conservatives is that they are neither going to abolish existing selection nor actively encourage new grammar schools. Despite the arguments of opponents of grammars there is no more evidence that Kent parents want to scrap selection than there is that people in other parts of the country want to re-introduce a system of grammars and secondary moderns. Indeed, the only time recently that parents were balloted on selection, in Ripon, they voted to keep it.
This is why it would be a wholly bad idea politically for Labour to promise a war on selection. The party has to win back seats in places like Kent to form a government, not alienate potential Labour voters. Gove is in a rather trickier position. He is far more interested in promoting new academies than he is in seeing new grammar schools, but he has a strong pro-grammar lobby in his party. Indeed, the Leader of Kent Council Paul Carter, who has backed the Sevenoaks developments, has been an opponent of Gove on academies, and there is no love lost between the two men.
However, Gove does need to be much clearer on the circumstances where he will and will not approve central funding and academy funding agreements for 'satellite' grammar schools. If he isn't, he will cause much bigger problems for his academy and free school programmes. Here, as elsewhere, the 'detoxified' Tory brand is in danger of re-toxifying.
The Sevenoaks developments could derail the education policies of both major parties if they listen to too many siren voices in this debate.