HomeOpinion"The Labour Party should complete its Unfinished Education Revolution"

“The Labour Party should complete its Unfinished Education Revolution”

Carl Smith

In 2018 I wrote a chapter in a fascinating book about “education system design” on selection in education*. It made two recommendations:

  1. End state subsidies to private schools including the introduction of a tax on fees
  2. Phase out grammar schools

I am pleased to say that we are well on the way to achieving the first but without the second I am concerned it will be an unfinished revolution.

To re-state the facts, seven per cent of children in England currently attend a private school and three per cent attend a grammar school.

If the IFS (Institute for Fiscal Studies) is right, the introduction of VAT on school fees is likely to result in between five to seven per cent of pupils moving from private to state schools, yielding a net boost to the treasury of up to £1.6 billion. A clear majority of the public support the policy so all is good.

Pupil numbers are set to fall over the next decade so it should not be difficult for state schools to absorb the extra numbers and even help them protect their budgets.

But how will the changes affect those areas of the country, like Kent, Lincolnshire, and Buckinghamshire, that still have grammar schools?

In 1965 the secretary of state for education, Anthony Crosland, sent out the famous Circular 10/65 to education authorities and the comprehensive revolution began.

Local education authorities were requested to submit plans for the reorganisation of secondary education in their areas on comprehensive lines and by 1979, 90 per cent had done so.

That was despite a Conservative government being elected in 1970, and a certain Margeret Thatcher being made education secretary.

She withdrew the circular so that local authorities no longer had to comply, but most authorities were keen on going comprehensive, and so the revolution continued. However, a few councils chose to retain grammar schools.

Although Labour returned to office in 1974, it never got round to addressing this anomaly and when the Conservatives won again in 1979 there was no chance of the gap being plugged.

So, it remained until 2016, when Conservative prime minister Theresa May suggested the introduction of new grammar schools, but the idea prompted a backlash and was eventually dropped.

Nevertheless, grammar schools remain. They tend to serve the most advantaged in society – only 6.7 per cent of their pupils are eligible for free school meals compared to 28.4 per cent in nearby non-selective schools. Unsurprisingly, only 4.3 per cent of grammar school pupils have a special education need or disability.

I suspect that in those local authorities where grammar schools remain, the introduction of VAT on private school fees will result in greater pressure for places in some of those grammar schools (as has been hyped up in much of the right-wing press – but also challenged by the Grammar School Heads Association).

Also, many grammar school pupils live outside their local community and 29 grammar schools admit more than 50 per cent of their pupils from further afield. The new tax could increase this trend.

The result that concerns me is private education by the back door.

Entry to grammar schools is already largely the preserve of those who can afford to pay for private tuition to pass the 11+. That market is only going to grow with the new tax, which will leave even fewer places for other young people.

In other words, those that can afford it will go to a grammar school in a form of private education by proxy.

The answer is clear.

The comprehensive revolution begun in 1965 should now be finished, with the remaining grammar schools phased into comprehensive schools over a five-year period.

It would be a straightforward process and most areas did it decades ago. Most of the country would not even notice and it would cost next to nothing.

Some parents in the areas where grammar schools still exist would object, but most parents nationally would not.

A few might argue that grammar schools are good for social mobility, but research from the University of Bristol’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation found that children growing up in areas that have grammar schools, face much higher earnings inequality later in life than those growing up in areas without grammar schools.

Stephen Gorard, professor of education at the University of Durham, says “there is repeated evidence that any appearance of advantage for those attending selective schools is outweighed by the disadvantage for those who do not”. That’s why Theresa May’s proposals never saw the light of day.

If we are really to tackle the disadvantage gap and raise education standards across the whole country, we cannot continue to allow this anomaly in our education system.

Selection in education entrenches privilege and disadvantage. Like whooping cough and rickets, such schools belong to a different age.

This article was first published in Schools Week.

Carl Smith is the principal of Casterton College Rutland, an 11-16 academy in Lincolnshire. He was educated at Warwick University and has a PGCE in history and politics from the UCL Institute of Education, and a masters degree in history. He gained his national professional qualification for headteachers in 2000.  Smith was the first advanced skills teacher of history in the UK and has authored several books on education.

*Education System Design: foundations, policy options and consequences (2021) Hudson, B., Leask, M & Younie, S.


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