LibLink: David Laws: It’s time for Theresa May to ditch grammar school plans

David Laws, our former Schools Minister now heading up the Education Policy Institute (which used to be the CentreForum think tank) has been writing for the Observer. He’s driven a coach and horses through the Government’s case for grammar schools, which he says even fails to convince Education Secretary Justine Greening.

It is one of the worst kept secrets in Westminster that education secretary Justine Greening is not the biggest supporter of the policy that is now the social mobility “flagship” of Theresa May’s government – expanding the number of grammar schools.

Greening must be aware of the clear UK and international evidence that selective education both fails to raise overall standards, and undermines the prospects of poor children. Education Policy Institute researchers last year analysed the government’s own schools data and drew two key conclusions. First, that almost no children on free school meals get into grammar schools – a risible 4,000 out of more than eight million pupils in the whole of England. Second, that although there is a small benefit for pupils who are admitted to selective schools, this is offset by the worse results for other pupils in areas with a significant number of grammar places.

He outlines how he poorest children will be the worst affected by the move to grammar schools:

Two-thirds of these poorest children already fail to secure the modest benchmark of five C grade GCSEs, including English and maths. That “failure” rate will rocket to 80% when the new, more challenging GCSE standard is introduced this year, so it makes no sense educationally to move the emphasis away from these poor children. So what is driving this new government narrative? It is tempting to conclude politics, not education.

The poorest children are very unlikely to gain from any solution involving a selection test at age 11. By then, 60% of the disadvantaged gap has already emerged – meaning these children are on average 10 months of learning behind their peers. To give these children a chance, the government needs to improve the quality of early years education, increase the number of excellent primary schools in poor areas, attract and develop more high quality teachers, and protect pupil premium funding from the coming budget squeeze.

You can read the whole article here. 

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12 Comments

  • Paul Kennedy 16th Apr '17 - 2:45pm

    We should stop saying the 11+ is a test taken at age 11. Most children take the test at age 10: https://www.elevenplusexams.co.uk/advice/what-is-11-plus

  • Hurray. Good to be able to agree with David Laws.

  • The grammar schools debate is a sideshow. The amount of money the government is spending on this is enough to build about 10 schools of the typical size for new secondary schools. While everyone is focussed on the 10 new schools the Government will do as it pleases with the other schools.

  • Peter Watson 16th Apr '17 - 4:20pm

    “almost no children on free school meals get into grammar schools”
    For too long though the Lib Dem position on grammar schools has looked half-arsed, summed up by the BBC in 2007 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/6660823.stm), “The Liberal Democrats would not shut down grammar schools either, but would not open any more.”. The starting pistol for increasing grammar school places was fired on the Lib Dem’s watch during the coalition years, and a poll of members on this site in 2014 (https://www.libdemvoice.org/schools-members-survey-38038.html), along with other debates on the topic on this site, suggested that the party was pretty equivocal on academic selection. Even in his article, Laws seems to be using evidence of failings in grammar school selection as a reason to oppose new ones rather than scrap the existing ones.
    However, I welcome the more principled position advocated by the Autumn 2016 party conference which unambiguously “calls on the government to abandon the selection by ability and social separation of young people, into different schools.”: this looks like a policy to scrap existing grammar schools. I wonder though if, along with a more recent conference vote to scrap “selection in admissions on the basis of religion or belief to state-funded schools”, in the forthcoming local elections are these policies which the party will emphasise or hide in order to avoid frightening away voters?

  • Grammar schools can work well for individuals from both poor and well-off backgrounds and it’s probably this that May is remembering from her childhood and, despite a wealth of evidence saying otherwise for the wider community, creating major policy from. Laws statement just so happens to come in the same week that it’s revealed that parents are being asked to fund English state schools and figures show the waste of money that the free schools project can be and has been yet May is marching on.

  • Michael Cole 16th Apr '17 - 7:27pm

    David Laws makes complete sense to me.

    It’s a truism that kids learn much of their behaviour and interests from other kids.

    The Tory instinct, based on fear, is to isolate the children of ‘their people’ from bad inluences (i.e. the poorest children) and, as far as possible, concentrate resources on the education of their own. Understandable perhaps, but hardly governing “for all of the people.”

    The liberal view is entirely different. Kids do learn from other kids – and hopefully the good far outweighs the bad.

  • Grammar schools are irrelevant to solving the problem of unequal outcomes for poorest children. We know how to address the problem and May is doing the exact opposite by continuing to close sure start centres. Bright poor kids are overtaken by average non-poor kids within the first few years at school. It is the catch-up from then onwards compounded in many cases by home environment. Pupil Premium seeks to address the issue but would be more effective if early years provision was enhanced rather than cut. The Grammar school policy is both ignorant and irrelevant.

  • We also need to keep an eye on the apparent grammar by the backdoor that some schools are apparently offering. I saw this on the news a few days ago, and it seems that there are some supposedly comprehensive schools that implement streaming from the very start of high school education, and those children stay in an entirely separate stream to the other children for the duration.

    Streaming on a subject by subject basis, based on fair assessment after at least a year of high school is fine, and with ongoing assessment that allows people to go up and not just down the stream.

    However, I agree that so many of the problems of premature streaming are really about the problems within early years education, and the inability of the current system to bridge the gap for children who don’t have the same level of support at home. One of the most common reasons given for early streaming is that the slower children hold back the bright ones, but what if proper investment in primary schools means that far more reach secondary school on a level that isn’t that far behind the brightest ones?

  • Laurence Cox 17th Apr '17 - 3:51pm

    @Fiona If it is on a subject-by-subject basis, it isn’t streaming it is setting. It has been tried, usually for only a few subjects like mathematics, sciences and languages, while most subjects are taught in mixed-ability groups. See this BBC Education article from 2001: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/1170241.stm

    The fundamental problem is that the more sets you have, the more teachers you need. Because any child can be in different sets for different subjects, the sets have to be in parallel in the timetable, meaning that you need more teachers as a single teacher cannot teach two different sets at the same time.

  • Peter Watson 17th Apr '17 - 8:49pm

    @Laurence Cox
    I believe that Fiona was responding to this news story (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-39589911) about grammar streams within schools or between schools within multi-academy trusts where there is more segregation than one might expect under normal streaming and setting.
    I have argued against grammar schools a few times on this site. There is an extent to which a grammar stream within a single school addresses some of my concerns but I am still uneasy about some of the issues raised by this news story.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Apr '17 - 12:49am

    From a man who often talks sense on the issues requiring analysis, this is welcome and strong from David Laws.

    His work, and the organisation he works for , is far less obviously party political now, a loss to us, but his Liberalism is such as to still be a staunch enough reason to hear more from him at times.

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