The Fair Education Alliance response to analysis of grammar school expansion

The Fair Education Alliance, a cross-sector coalition, continues to oppose the expansion of grammar school, and is disappointed by the results of the BBC’s analysis, published today, which show that grammar school places in England have grown by more than 11,000 since 2010.

There is clear evidence to show that selective education has a negative impact on social mobility and widens the gap between the most advantaged and most disadvantaged students. The BBC has found that less than 60% of grammar schools have a policy to give priority to poorer children, and that several schools admitted no free school meals students in the past year.

The Government’s £200 million expansion fund could have a huge impact if invested in programmes that are proven to have an impact on the lives of our most disadvantaged young people. Our education systems needs investment in early years education, in supporting teaching and leadership in hard-to-staff schools serving disadvantaged communities, and in building social and emotional skills for young people from all backgrounds.

Four out of five heads and teachers oppose new grammar schools

Over 2,500 teachers, school leaders and heads respond to a poll conducted by NAHT, ASCL, and Teach First on behalf of The Fair Education Alliance

Less than 48 hours after the government formally launched the Prime Minister’s new policy on grammar schools, the overwhelming majority of teachers and school leaders surveyed have rejected the plans.

The findings represent a clear rejection of the policy by the parts of the education profession that normally work most constructively with government. Each organisation has stressed the desire to see an ambitious programme of social mobility that stretches every child, rather than selecting only a lucky few.

The Fair Education Alliance is publishing the results of a joint survey of over 2,500 head teachers and teachers by The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and Teach First. Over 80% of respondents oppose the creation of new grammar schools. The survey also found that 80% of teachers and head teachers who were asked do not believe that a test taken at 11 years old can reliably measure long term academic potential.

With the strength of feelings clear, the Fair Education Alliance has launched a public petition on the issue at here.

Key findings:

  • 82% of respondents oppose the opening of new grammars
  • 80% of respondents do not believe that a test administered at age 11 can reliably measure long-term academic potential
  • 79% of respondents believe that there is no evidence for increasing selection in education
  • 81% of respondents believe that there is no evidence for opening grammar schools
  • 85% of respondents do not believe a test at age 11 can be insulated from non-academic factors such as parental engagement or income

Russell Hobby, General Secretary of the NAHT, said: “Increasing the number of grammar schools will lower standards and restrict opportunity. We cannot afford such an elitist policy in the twenty-first century - as many students as possible need a high quality academic education. This is a terrible distraction from the issues that matter most.”

Malcolm Trobe, Interim General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We don’t need more selection in the education system. What schools desperately need is enough teachers and enough funding, both of which are in critically short supply. The government should focus on these issues rather than obsessing about an education policy plucked from the 1950s. Our job is to work together to ensure the education system supports all young people to achieve.”

Brett Wigdortz, CEO and Founder of Teach First, said: “We are united in our desire to improve social mobility, but it’s clear we must use proven policies to achieve this. We know great comprehensive schools and academies are delivering a stretching and ambitious education. We must aim to replicate this for every child, not selecting only a few to be supported to succeed, whilst leaving the majority behind.”

The three organisations who jointly conducted the survey are part of the Fair Education Alliance (FEA), a coalition working together to ensure that every child gets a world class education, irrespective of their socio-economic background and oppose new grammars. The FEA argues that investing in the quality of early years, investing in teaching and leadership in schools and guaranteeing high quality and impartial careers advice to disadvantaged children are more effective ways to improve social mobility.

The Fair Education Alliance's statement on new grammar schools

The Fair Education Alliance welcomes a debate on how to improve social mobility but we strongly believe that an expansion of grammar schools would lead to worse outcomes for poor children. Evidence shows that grammar schools serve a small amount of disadvantaged pupils and they have a pernicious effect on surrounding schools. Instead, we should focus on working together to take bold action to attract more teachers into the most deprived areas, invest in high quality early years provision and guarantee access to impartial and professional careers advice for deprived young people.

Grammar schools will create a new glass ceiling for disadvantaged children

I’m very proud to say that I was educated at an East London comprehensive school. It was an institution where every child was celebrated and where we all felt that we each had something valuable to bring to the school. Sporting prowess, academic excellence, acting ability were all held in high esteem by all pupils. There was a culture of high expectations for all students, driven by an inspirational group of teachers led by Sir Michael Wilshaw, who went on to become the current Chief Inspector of schools.

It was because of the dedication of those teachers that I was lucky enough to win a place at Oxford University, not a hugely common occurrence for a black male born to immigrant parents who grew up in a tower block in the most deprived part of London. The school was a true engine of social mobility.

So you could argue that my opposition to the creation of new grammar schools is based on my personal life experiences. But in fact, my deep concerns over what would be one of the most socially regressive policies passed in recent memory is largely informed by evidence.

That evidence shows that grammar schools don’t adequately serve young people from disadvantaged communities. Instead, selective school places are often “captured” by middle class families. According to the Sutton Trust, less than 3 per cent of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, whereas almost 13 per cent of entrants come from outside the state sector.

The Fair Education Alliance’s 2015 Report Card on educational inequality shows that gaps emerge very early between poor children and their wealthier peers – this early disadvantage would limit the chances of young people from poor families of succeeding in selection exams. Interestingly, the evidence shows that this gap in access persists even when deprived children achieve equally good grades.

Unsurprising, given the existence of expensive private bespoke tuition for the 11+ tests. Rather than tackle educational inequality, grammar schools compound it. You could impose a mechanism to force any new school to diversify its intake but that then raises the question – why not try to close the gap through existing school structures?

Moreover, the evidence shows that these schools have a pernicious effect on poor pupils who don’t make it past the entrance exam. As a matter of principle, the state should not endorse a system that brands pupils as winners and losers at such a young age. In practice, outcomes for pupils from poor families who fail to secure access to grammar schools are worse than those who are educated in counties without selective schools.

Shockingly, this also manifests itself in later life. Research by Simon Burgess at Bristol University indicates that earnings inequality is greater for those who grew up in areas operating a selective system compared to those who grew up in comprehensive areas. Number 10 and the Department for Education are slowly sleepwalking into imposing a new glass ceiling for disadvantaged children.

The government must be applauded for putting the debate on social mobility front and centre of their plans for post-brexit Britain. However, there are other policy areas that need urgent attention – bold action to attract the best leaders and teachers into the most deprived parts of the country, investment in improving the quality of early years, guaranteeing the provision of impartial careers advice to the poor families, ensuring that young people have the opportunities to develop their character to name a few. Getting these right as soon as possible will do more for disadvantaged children than creating new grammar schools ever will.

Lewis Iwu

Director of the Fair Education Alliance.