Education: 47% of Lib Dems want grammar schools opened up, while clear majorities oppose academies, free schools and for-profit schools

Lib Dem Voice has polled our members-only forum  to discover what Lib Dem members think of various political issues, the Coalition, and the performance of key party figures. Some 750 party members responded – thank you – and we’ve been publishing the full results.

(There were a couple of results I ran out of time to publish during the Christmas holiday period – I’m publishing them this week.)

Almost half (47%) Lib Dems call for opening up of grammar schools to all children

Thinking about grammar schools and schools that select pupils by ability, which of the following best reflects your views?

    21% – The government should encourage more schools to select by academic ability and build more grammar schools

    22% – The government should retain the existing grammar schools, but should not allow more selective schools or new grammar schools to be built

    47% – The government should stop schools selecting by academic ability and the existing grammar schools should be opened to children of all abilities

    9% – Don’t know

An interestingly mixed response, with just under one-half (47%) Lib Dem members wanting to see existing academically selective grammar schools opened up to all – but one-fifth (21%) wanting to see more grammar schools built, and a little more than that (22%) content with the status quo. You can see a selection of members’ comments on this question at the foot of this post.

Clear majorities of Lib Dems oppose academies (53%), free schools (59% and for-profit schools (75%)

Would you support or oppose the following policies…

… Schools becoming academies – schools that receive funding directly from the government, are outside the control of local authorities, and have greater freedom over setting their pay, opening times and curriculum?

    30% – Support

    14% – Neither support nor oppose

    53% – Oppose

    2% – Don’t know

… The creation of “Free Schools” – new state schools set up by parents, teachers or voluntary groups which are outside the control of local authorities?

    23% – Support

    15% – Neither support nor oppose

    59% – Oppose

    3% – Don’t know

… Allowing state schools to be run by private companies that can make a profit if they meet targets and run schools well?

    11% – Support

    9% – Neither support nor oppose

    75% – Oppose

    4% – Don’t know

There is, it seems, significant minority support (30%) for academy schools, though a clear majority (53%) are opposed. There is some support for free schools (23%), but an even clearer majority (59%) is opposed. And there is little support at all (11%) for allowing profit-making state-funded schools, with an overwhelming three-quarters (75%) of Lib Dems opposed.

As promised, here’s a selection of your comments…

• Investment in education is the key. More teachers and smaller class sizes. Do this and you will see students thrive.
• We need excellent local schools with strong leadership for all, not just the few.
• I do not like any of these choices but feel that there is nothing wrong in encouraging academic excellence. The less able also require facilities to achieve their best.
• A bit of selection is sometimes better for everybody.
• Free schools, so called, and academies wreck the planning of educational provision. We need universal, good-quality comps
• A selective system always creates ‘failures’ irrespective of the age of transfer from primary to secondary education.
• Grammar schools offer a leg-up for able working class children. At the moment it is a postcode lottery.
• We need to have schools which allow students to rise to the top. Children are born different. We need schools which match the differences in our children. To try to impose “one size fits all” is not very Liberal.
• Local authorities should have greater freedom to choose structure of schools
• We need some selection, maybe more, but a system based on selection is a cop out.
• elitism should be opposed and weeded out of the system
• Need an option here for greater autonomy for Comprehensives to be open to children of all abilities but then academic / vocational streaming within the school
• None of the above: Te Government’s role in education is to ensure that a future citizen has the standard of education they need to succeed in whatever endeavour they wish. The debate should not be about either forcing everyone into a standard educational model, or creating a two tier system that labels students as intellectual for life at the age of 10. Different teaching systems benefit different types of people. Surely it is not outside the ability of Government to provide a variety of schools with different teaching styles and methods so that children can be sent to the school that is going to get the best out of them. Just because a child doesn’t suit the grammar model, doesn’t mean a different system wouldn’t propel them to achieve academically.
• But of course “the government” shouldn’t have anything to do with it. It should be a matter for local authorities.
• My school took in the best in the County in S 4. It worked well as the teachers taught to the ability of their class. Very mixed ability classes are inefficient.
• I was happy to go to a comprehensive – but you do need to stream more
• I also think all boys and all girls schools are outdated and discriminatory.
• And we should castigate the Labour Govt of 13 years for failing to give our children equal opportunities.
• Or rather make sure all schools have classes sorted by ability, ie have grammar classes within each school. (that’s the way it works in France)
• Some children are born with natural genius; others are not. The two do not mix well
• secondary Modern areas seem to have poorer results than comprehensive areas. It shoud be an offenc to refuse access to any school to any person for the purpose of study. All education should be free at the point of use.
• Whatever we do, we need to give bright kids whose parents don’t happen to be wealthy more chances. At some point academic ability has to be a decision factor in what kids are asked to do.

  • 1,500 Lib Dem paid-up party members are registered with 749 responded to the latest survey, which was conducted between 14th and 18th December.
  • Please note: we make no claims that the survey is fully representative of the Lib Dem membership as a whole. However,’s surveys are the largest independent samples of the views of Lib Dem members across the country, and have in the past offered accurate guides to what party members think.
  • For further information on the reliability/credibility of our surveys, please refer to FAQs: Are the Liberal Democrat Voice surveys of party members accurate? and polling expert Anthony Wells’ verdict, On that poll of Lib Dem members.
  • The full archive of our members’ surveys can be viewed at
  • * Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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    • I spent yesterday mentoring teenagers at a FE college. It was clear that many had no experience of the kind of behaviours expected by employers. This seems to be because of the home and school environment in which they live. Whilst the day was very rewarding, it was only a few brief hours and I wonder how long it will take for the work to he undone.

      Part of the benefit of grammar schools when they were universal (as oppose to the tiny oversubscribed minority left) was that they provided an alternative environment for able pupils who’s talent would have withered otherwise.

      Setting in comprehensives doesn’t provide this.

    • Simon – the original 44 act had a tertiary system. We already have specialist local schools; that’s the answer.

    • Steve Coltman 1st Feb '14 - 10:24am

      The group I don’t understand are those who want to keep the current Grammar schools but want no more. Either you believe in some sort of selection or you don’t. Personally I do, but the emphasis on Grammar schools makes me despair. For non-academic pupils, being sent to a ‘comprehensive’ in a rich middle class area, ie a ‘comprehensive’ with aspirations to be a pseudo-grammar school, must be a nightmare. We need pupils to attend schools that are suitable for them as individuals, and a well-run, well-funded secondary modern school might be just right for a lot of pupils, as might be well-run, well-funded Technical Schools be just right for others.

    • Jenny Barnes 1st Feb '14 - 10:24am

      Once upon a time I was a teacher. I taught in the Community Sink School in one of the new towns. There were 6 secondary schools, all allegedly comps, but really one was middle class, 4 were mixed, and mine . How do you make a good school? Middle class intake. Job done. I felt sorry for the children, mostly they wanted to get out and do something real from about the age of 14 – but they were made to sit at desks and do abstract stuff, which they hated. I don’t think “technical” schools are the answer, either. That’s just a different form of keeping them out of the job market/off the streets.

    • Academies have some advantages. We are encouraging schools to become academies in our borough – to stop our predatory single party Conservative administration from closing them to sell their land!

    • Jenny Barnes – unwittingly you’ve hit the nail on the head. Many pupils at 14 have had enough of education and forcing them to stay just disrupts the education of their peers. Some sort of vocational/workplace (apprenticeship, dare I say?) FE would seem to be most appropriate. This needs to be balanced by an opportuity to pursue a more academic route should they choose to when they’re older and more mature.

      Steve Coltman – I agree. because there are so few of them, the remaining Grammars are really “super-Grammars”, regional elite schools which bear no relation to the pre-Comprehensive Grammars up until the 1970s.

      Similarly, I can’t understand those who defend the “Comprehensive” status quo either. We’ve replaced selection by some degree of academic ability with selection by wealth – as those with the money to buy in the catchment of good schools.

      The old system had faults – not least the single testing point at 11 – but its faults are easily addressed and the benefits would be enormous.

    • Stephen – surely the moor interesting headline would 43% want to retain or extend Grammar School provision, while less than half want to get rid of them? 😉

    • Stephen – it would also be very interesting to be able to subdivide the respondents to the Grammar question as follows:

      – by school attended (Grammar/Sec Mod/Comprehensive)
      – whether they have children (and what age)

      I suspect it would be highly informative.

    • Simon Shaw – “Suppose an area currently has (say) 15 Comprehensive Schools. Under your plan you would have around 4 Grammar Schools. What would you see the other 11 schools being – in approximate terms?”

      I notice that the Comprehensive I attended is now a “Visual Arts College”. Other schools seem to focus on technology, performing arts, music, science, maths, humanities, sports, etc. We already have the answer in place, don’t we?

      “Are you thinking of a particular part of the country there? Certainly where I live I would not say we had “selection by wealth”.”

      The city I live in is much like the one described by Jenny Barnes. There are five comprehensives. One is in an area where house prices are largely unaffordable to those without two large incomes. Unsurprisingly it is near the top of the state school league tables. Three are mixed to varying degrees, with one having a good sixth form. The final one is situated in a problematic large estate. The “top” school suffers from all the usual dodges (renting flats, using grandparents’ addresses etc) whereas only those who lack money or interest send their children to the latter.

      This situation is repeated all over the country. Affluent people congregate together and there has been a reinforcing effect over the last forty years since Grammar Schools were abolished. Its is very common to see 2, 3 or 4 times price differentials for essentially the same house within a city based purely on which suburb (and associated school) it is located.

      This highly iniquitous status quo has been allowed to carry on for years by an unholy alliance of the following interest groups:

      – the middle class who prefer to buy their way into good schools through catchment area pricing rather than run the risk of their child not getting in via exam
      – those who can afford private education and don’t want the competition from excellent state Grammars for Russell group University places
      – the bien pensant left who play lip service to the idea of educational equality whilst neatly sidestepping it when reality affects their own children

    • On issues of education, why should power be centralised in Westminster? It is odd to me that most of those who decry Brussels are all too keen to wrest control of local and regional issues to Westminster. Of all areas of government, education can benefit from being directly answerable to the local populace and its industrial profile.

      I am grammar school educated; whilst I can admire what goes on in many of them in general terms, I cannot defend their existence. Courtesy of a thriving private tuition industry, they do select partly by wealth; nonetheless, I can see why 22% would not seek to close those that remain. The problem is that many do provide a special environment, which one might well be reluctant to discard especially since marketisation and Ofstedisation of schools has continually degraded provision of education over the last 20 or more years. The centralisation experiment has failed.

    • Helen Tedcastle – “end the grammar school system entirely and make all schools community schools. This way more middle class children will have to go to local schools and this will level up those schools.”

      This is hopelessly naive. Those children will NOT go to the local schools; they will either go to private schools or else the local schools will become middle class bastions via house price selection in the way I’ve already described.

      “Of course, there are the remaining private schools but the way to persuade anxious middle class parents to send their children to state schools, is to widen the social intake of the local schools and make teaching an attractive profession for motivated, caring and well-qualified people. ”

      Middle class parents do send their children to state schools – but they congregate in the same schools where ability to pay the house prices required to live in catchment is the method of selection (rather than ability).

      Why do none of the comprehensive system defenders engage with this point?

    • Simon Shaw – “If you have 15 Comprehensives and 4 become Grammar Schools the others cease to be Comprehensives and become Secondary Moderns, unless you can suggest some alternative.”

      We already have this system in place, except the grammar schools are called “Academies” and/or are the “comprehensives” in expensive catchment areas. Selection by ability to pay.

    • Helen Tedcastle – Here’s the issue you fail to address. I’ve used your words to emphasise the point.

      For every single middle class comprehensive, there are three or four ” comrehensive” Secondary Moderns. This was the reality when I grew up and this is the reality in towns and cities where the iniquitous selection by hose price into catchent areas exists.

      Does this two-tier system raise aspiration across the board or does it advantage a minority? The pushy parents and so-called ‘aspirational’ (for their own kids no one else’s), love comrehensives – the very wealthy will always be able to afford the prices of the houses in catchement, while others use dodges such as renting flats or using grandparents’ addresses. It’s important for the parents of the children buying yheir way into catchment to give their child every advantage over other children. The philosophy behind this is – charity begins at home/ look after your own/ pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. This is no doubt why so many worried middle class parents are against grammars and for comprehensives, as they don’t want the competition of allowing those less well off to usupr their welath-based stranglehold on the best state schools.

      Now Government policy can pander to that mentality or alternatively as a country, we could aspire for all children, regardless of their parents’ social class, to provide a good education for all. We do this by providing selection by ability, with in-flight mobility, into academic grammar Schools. We also do this by providing excellent technical and vocational schools as well as catering for academic children.

    • Martin – the thriving tuition industry is precisely because there are so few Grammars left. The remaining Grammars are in fact now “super-Grammars” that take the top 2-3% from a 30 mile radius rather than the top 30% from a 3 mile radius. Consequently competition is extremely fierce.

    • Helen Tedcastle – of course no government can stop people chosing to live and associate with whomever they want; but that’s not the issue here.

      At present the wealthier middle class can exclude the poor from “their” schools very effectively by choosing to live together such that their “community school” includes only those from the wealthy local community. By having a system of academic selection across a much wider area, that advantage is removed at a stroke. You can no longer buy a place for your child simply by being able to afford to live near the “right” school.

      My reading of your argument is that you are quite happy for the aspirational middle class to continue to buy their way into privelege, whilst denying access to the social capital that for around 30 years was available to all able children regardless of their personal circumstances. The current system reinforces the already deep social divides that we have. Wealthy middle class children are no longer required to interact with their less fortunate, but, importantly, equally as able neighbours from the other side of town. This lack of interaction therefore fails to challenge the perceptions of themselves as deserving.

    • Liberal Neil 1st Feb '14 - 3:20pm

      “For every single middle class comprehensive, there are three or four ” comrehensive” Secondary Moderns. This was the reality when I grew up and this is the reality in towns and cities where the iniquitous selection by hose price into catchent areas exists.”

      That’s nonsense. The vast majority of comprehensives are fine. There is a smallish minority that are in better off areas and a smallish minority that serve very poor areas, but the vast majority are fine and with not a massive amount to choose between them.

      You can see this in the results, with a fairly small amount of variation between most schools on value added scores.

    • Helen Tedcastle – “Grammar schools are located in leafy suburbs, middle class children go there with the addition of a few academic working class kids who get the bus to school from their ordinary estate, while their neighbours go to the local schools.”

      Talking about today’s Grammars misses the point. There are too few of them, so that, as i’ve already said, they take the top 3% from a 30 mile radius rather than the top 30% froma 3 mile radius. They are super-Grammars, not Grammars.

      Grammar schools may have been located in leafy suburbs, but – and this is the key point that again you completely fail to address – living near the school did NOT gain you entry to it.

      Under the Grammar system able children will be able to go to the school in the leafy middle class suburb at the expense of some of the middle class children who live near by.

      “It is highly unlikely that middle class families will live on a council estate, grammars or no grammars.”

      Indeed. But at present they can attend their pseudo-Grammar comprehensives and exclude the poor-but able. Entry by selection would make where they lived irrelevent.

    • Liberal Neil 1st Feb '14 - 3:24pm

      The problem with your argument for Grammars is that misses out all the evidence that children from middle class families have a huge advantage when it comes to the entrance exams because of their background.

      So better off families may not have the same advantage because of being able to afford a more expensive house, but they have it because of the other advantages their children have had. That’s why Grammar school intakes never reflect the population they serve, there’s an inbuilt bias to start with.

      One advantage of comprehensives is that they continue to give youngsters from poorer homes a chance to shine thorughout their secondary school years, rather than having their options limited at age 11 by an entrance exam.

    • Liberal Neil – “That’s nonsense. The vast majority of comprehensives are fine. There is a smallish minority that are in better off areas and a smallish minority that serve very poor areas, but the vast majority are fine and with not a massive amount to choose between them.

      You can see this in the results, with a fairly small amount of variation between most schools on value added scores.”

      So – we have a lot of schools that are “fine” – or “ok”, or “middling” or “bog standard”. All that means is that the strangelhold on privelege that is currently held by the privately-educated will continue.

      Under the last years fo the Grammar School system the number of private schools was falling. Since their abolition, their number have increased. Until the state system can provide the same levels of excellence that strangelehold is destined to last into perpetuity.

    • Liberal Neil – the wealthy will always be able to buy some advantage, but the previous system went some way towards levelling the playing field. now it is compeltely stacked in favour of the wealthy.

      Your arguments against grammars can be ended at a stroke by two very simple actions:

      – test for aptitude rather than attainment (this is exactly how Oxbridge weeds out the expensively-coached)
      – ensure mobility at 11, 13, 14 and 16, rather than only once at 11

    • Helen Tedcastle – “t is the social mix which is also important for them – middle class parents like to choose their friends from a narrow pool with which they feel comfortable. They like their children to mix with certain families who do the same range of activities as they do, regardless of how highly rated the school is.

      It proves one thing. Social class is a high priority for people in England. It is not a truly egalitarian country. ”

      I don’t disagree with any of this.

      However – the Grammar School generation climbed up the ladder and then kicked it away so that those of us who followed no longer had their opportunities.

      The trapdoor is well and truly sealed shut and social mobility is at an all time low. You seem happy with this state of affairs.

      The benefit of Grammar Schools is that they open the trapdoor and re-lower the ladder whilst keeping the middle classes on side and actively engaged in state education rather than looking to opt out.

      Given that we are not Finland, that we are a class-obsessed society, then we have to work with the grain of the society we live in. Grammars are the least worst option available to us to restart the engine of social mobility.

    • Tabman

      Your main concern seems to be that admission policies based on where people live tend to segregate people according to their social class.

      Wouldn’t it be simpler to modify those admission policies to ensure more geographical (and therefore social) mixing, rather than bringing back segregation according to ability/aptitude at 11?

    • Eddie Sammon 1st Feb '14 - 4:15pm

      I think we should stick to comprehensives and private schools, but I’m pretty relaxed about it. I just wish we had more cross party consensus.

    • Simon Shaw – “Sorry, do you know what you are talking about?”


      “You claim that Academies are actually Grammar Schools. If so, could you please supply details of some Academies selecting their pupils on grounds of academic ability?”

      No – I claim that the argument used by those who support the comprehensive system – that Grammars are socially exclusive – is equally applicable to comprehensives. Indeed the Sutton Trust found that the top comprehensive schools were far less socially mixed than the top remianing Grammars, and that’s in a situation where the remaining Grammars select from a far wider geographical and narrower social range than 40 years ago precisely because there are so few of them.

      The middle classes fear Grammars because it takes control away from them. They far prefer a system they can manipulate to their advantage using wealth or faith.

    • Tabman 1st Feb ’14 – 3:51pm
      However – the Grammar School generation climbed up the ladder and then kicked it away so that those of us who followed no longer had their opportunities.

      Which generation would that be? Alan Bennett’s generation? He was born in 1934 and based ‘The History Boys’ on his time at a Leeds Grammar School? Or my daughter’s generation? She was born 1993 and went to our local state grammar school. I am guessing that your generation is somewhere in between? There being 60 years in between I would suggest there are a few generations you might have belonged to.

      The Grammar Schools that were common in England in the 1950s were in the main abolished by a generation of national politicians who were in power in the 1960s and 1970s. A generation of politicians who in the main went to public or fee paying schools. Interestingly Margaret Thatcher as SofS for Education killed off more Grammar Schools than anyone else. Shirley Williams I would guess could still mount a very good case for State Comprehensives.

    • Peter Watson 1st Feb '14 - 6:54pm

      @Tabman”ensure mobility at 11, 13, 14 and 16, rather than only once at 11″
      Streaming/setting in a comprehensive enables this (and can allow more frequent moves in either direction). It does so without the disincentive of moving a settled child to a new school away from his/her friends. It also allows children who are strong in one subject but weak in another to be taught appropriately in both, and without the stigma of being deemed a ‘failure’ at 11 despite talent in some areas.

    • In Germany they have no issue in separating children into appropriate schools. Those who don’t get into the Gymnastium don’t consider themselves failures. Whereas you would label them as such.

      Whose economy would you rather have?

    • Simon Shaw – I did answer you. Those schools would have their own specialisms. Some would be vocationally oriented. Some sports etc. Some could be mixed for those who wish to assuage their egalitarian consciences.

      Whereas, with a very few exceptions, a selective academic education is denied to those without the wherewithal to pay for it. That doesn’t seem liberal to me.

    • Helen Tedcastle – “i am part of the generation which endured the Grammar school system and in those days, if you didn’t pass the 11 plus, you thought of yourself as thick or not particularly academic. That was how it was. It lowered expectations for the many. ”

      Well I’m part of the immediately following comprehensive school generation who had to suffer mixed ability classes, and the inevitable disruption that brought. You learned to hide any spark of academic ability. In far too many the flame that would have been nurtured in a Grammar school was snuffed out entirely. Pupils who struggled saw the ease with which some of their peers took in the material and took out their frustrations on them.

    • Where I live there used to be a grammar school and a comprehensive. They were merged together. The result is a school that has got stunningly poor results for 20 years. If you want a good secondary school you have to move away and Ive watched colleagues do just that for the last 10 years. At least grammar schools gave some poorer kids a chance. What we got instead was lower standards except for those weathy enough to relocate or go private. Many comprehensives dont encourage their kids to go to the top universities or even offer A level combinations applicants need for the most challenging subjects. We are not getting the best out of our most valuable asset, our kids. Labour preach one thing and then send their kids private, Tories dont care as they go private anyway. Its time that someone did some straight talking.

    • Eddie Sammon 1st Feb '14 - 9:22pm

      Comprehensives are fine if the government and the teachers run them properly. I was at C grade in GCSE science at 14, but they wouldn’t let me progress beyond this level, because of Labour’s target trap, which the coalition has removed.

      I like private schools too because they are an incentive to work. Grammar schools seem a bit draconian and I think taxpayer funded assets should remain taxpayer controlled, so I don’t like free schools, unless they have been privately funded.

    • John Tilley – entered a recently ex secondary modern in 1980. Mixed ability teaching. Dreadful for all concerned. And made worse by knowing what could have been.

    • John Tilley. The seeds of Grammar School destruction were sewn by those who used them or were privately educated and saw them as a threat. Like Anthony crosland

    • Simon Shaw – what do they call them in Germany?

      The majority of existing comprehensives already are effectively secondary moderns. A few high performing ones suck up the wealthy.

    • Helen Tedcastle – that’s just an argument for movement at intermediate stages, not an argument against the principle of selection.

    • Peter Watson 1st Feb '14 - 9:49pm

      @Tabman “In Germany they have no issue in separating children into appropriate schools. Those who don’t get into the Gymnastium don’t consider themselves failures. Whereas you would label them as such.”
      We don’t live in Germany, and in the English grammar school system, sadly every child at a secondary modern is beginning that stage of their education labelled as somebody who “failed” their 11+.
      I am sure that secondary education could be usefully reorganised, but returning to the two-tier grammar school approach (which essentially is “success” vs. “failure” against a very narrow measure at age 11) simply seems wrong, as does a free school free-for-all. I believe that the starting point for any discussion about improving secondary education should begin with agreement about what we want to achieve as we move forwards, not be whether or not to go backwards to grammar schools and secondary moderns.

    • Helen Tedacstle – do I take it, then, that you would close selective music academies, sports academies, drama academies and the like?

    • Peter Watson – I’ve already addressed this. Test aptitude not attainment, and introduce later years mobility. Provide schools and qualifications suited to more vocational pursuits. It’s not a “reintroduction of the old system” but its adaption to the modern world, whilst providing an avenue for the academically talented (a) to fulfill themselves in an environment free from persecution and (b) to challenge the closed world of the privately-educated elite.

    • Peter, Helen, Simon et al – I suggest you watch this to see what we’ve thrown away:

    • Helen Tedcastle – you’re slightly missig my point. There exist establishments designed to cater for those with particular talents (not all of whch are academic). If we don’t favour selection by academica aility, then why should we send gifted dancers or musicians or footballers to establishments that focus on that particular a bility?

    • Julian Critchley 2nd Feb '14 - 1:10am


      “Middle class parents do send their children to state schools – but they congregate in the same schools where ability to pay the house prices required to live in catchment is the method of selection (rather than ability).

      Why do none of the comprehensive system defenders engage with this point?”

      I’ll engage, if you like.

      The problem is that you, and most of the journalists/politicians’ coverage of this issue, are getting the direction of causation completely wrong.

      Catchment areas don’t become expensive because of “good” schools. Schools become “good” because of expensive catchment areas. It really is that simple.

      The problem is that there’s a enormously simplistic tendency for those in the media and politics to simply equate exam results with quality of school. So school A with its affluent catchment area of well-supported, motivated, high-achieving middle-class kids will get high results, and be called a “good” school. School B, on the other hand, with its impoverished estate filled with unsupported, deprived, unmotivated and low-achieving kids will get low results, and be condemned by the ignorant as a “weak” school. Then comes all the usual guff about how the weak school can learn from the good school, or some carpet salesman can “turn it around” by putting everyone in a blazer, because that’s what “good” schools do.

      But there isn’t a teacher in the land who won’t tell you that it’s entirely possible that the “weak” school is actually doing a better job with its students than the “good” school. In fact, you can find it out for yourself because there’s an awful lot of value-added data freely available which can show you exactly what the intake of each school is, what its prior attainment, and how much has been added by the school in question. Indeed, there’s academic research which clearly shows that there is a greater disparity in outcomes inside a school than between two different schools.

      To give a personal example, I head a department in a school labelled “outstanding”. Our results are literally the best in the country for comparable schools (congratulatory letter from David Laws last week, as it happens). Governors thanking teachers, house prices adding a few thousand, all that sort of guff. We’re even being asked to “mentor” some other schools because we’re all so great. Down the road, there’s what used to be the local sink school – I did my training there for a year. Much lower results consistently. Labelled as “failing”, it was handed to a big academy chain last year, to do their usual hatchet job on the teachers, new blazers, silly leaflets to parents advertising a “grammar school stream” and so on. These are exactly the sort of schools you see mentioned in articles bemoaning that all schools can’t be like the good one, or complaining that parents move to get into the “good” one’s catchment area because the bad one is so, well, bad.

      Except, it’s all utter nonsense. If you left all the respective staff in place, in the same buildings, with the same resources, but bussed our students to the “bad” school, and their students to the “good” school, then our results would swap overnight. In fact, some of the teachers at my school would be utterly unable to cope with the students the “bad” school does a good job with, while the new students at the “bad” school might find that they get better lessons than ever, because the teachers there have never got into bad habits because the students are so easy, as some of us might have.

      Now we all know this. Which begs the question : why do we have an entire education policy, and an endless public education debate, which talks about outcomes as if the only input is the school, and whether it’s “good” or “bad”, when we actually know – we KNOW – that the overwhelming determinant of results is the intake, and the overwhelming influence on the intake is non-school factors – key amongst which is socio-economic background ?

      Let me finish on a different note. There are plenty of schools which have now been called “good” or “outstanding” by OFSTED, even though their absolute results are not great. They may even get plaudits from local politicians for doing good things with a challenging student body. Yet funnily enough, they’re still largely shunned by middle-class parents. So take Hammersmith and Fulham, for example. Of their secondary schools, all of them have either “good” or “outstanding” grades from OFSTED, perhaps recognising the tremendous work they do to get their students the 38% or 42% GCSE A-C pass rates. Yet was there a clamour by the local affluent to get into these schools ? Hmm. No. Instead, we have Toby Young’s “free school” popping up. Hang on, I hear you cry – middle class parents are desperate to send their kids to “good” schools. Well here’s some “outstanding” ones, right on their doorstep, yet they still go to great lengths not to send their kids there. Well, well. It’s almost as if this whole debate is just one great big lie. Almost as if, for plenty of parents, what they really want is to be able to socially segregate their middle-class children from the nasty working class kids, EVEN IF THE LOCAL SCHOOL IS “GOOD”. But we don’t want to admit that do we ? Even – perhaps especially – the Guardian readers. So instead we get this guff about “good” schools and “weak” schools, and parents talking about how the “outstanding” school with the large working-class, ethnic minority student body just “wouldn’t push” their little princess quite as hard as the “good” school down the road which can easily be seen to be adding less value to each student, but happens to be full of more affluent, whiter, students.

      The claimed academic standards of schools have log acted as a cover for parents’ to select a school for its social class attributes, because the two always go together in absolute terms. The difficulty is that we now have much more sophisticated data on what schools actually contribute, and an inspection system (if you value OFSTED’s judgements, which I don’t), which is increasingly showing that the “weak” schools are just as strong, if not stronger, than the “good” schools. Yet much of the education “debate” in this country seems to involve the participants placing their hands over their eyes, blocking their ears and shouting “I’m not listening”.

      Sorry for the length, but you did want someone to engage….

    • Julian Critchley – thanks for a thoughtful, well argued and very detailed response. I enjoyed reading it. Its also one that I to a large extent agree with, though there’s an element of chicken and egg about the house prices – lets agree that there’s a virtuous circle effect. However, I think what you’ve written still acts in support of my argument, and here’s why.

      If I can paraphrase your much more sophisticated and nuanced argument, you are, in effect, saying that the middle classes tend to stick together, and that includes where they send their children to school. In fact that force is so powerful that they will ignore spposedly “objective” measures that might indicate a neighbouring, but more mixed, school is better than one more homgenously middle class / white.

      This is a powerful yet subtle force and one that is extremely difficult to counter given it is never acknowledged explicitly. The current system allows the whole issue to be, in the main, sidestepped because people go to local schools and as you say, neighbourhoods with high barriers to entry have the least socially diverse schools.

      So – what to do about it, if you feel that our society needs a higher degree of mobility than we have at present, and that we need to reverse the ossification of the upper echelons that has been taking place over the last 30 years?

      One option that the left sometimes advocate is enforced social mixing – bussing, to ensure that all schools have a social profile that corresponds to the nation as a whole. I see versions of this argument above (“force parents to send their children to their local school”). It is a seductive one for those so inclined.

      But, leaving aside the fact that such a high degree of compulsion is the antithesis of Liberalism, there are several reasons why this wouldn’t ever be practical in this country. Firstly, its political suicide. One of the strong drivers against Grammar Schools was the middle class fear that their children would fail the 11+; there was strong evidence that this was happening increasingly by the late ’60s. Enforced social mixing would never be a vote winner. Secondly, even were it to be enacted, it would drive open revolt. Those that could afford it would go private; indeed it would be a major driver for the opening of new independent schools. So any government would have to outlaw the private schools too – further political suicide.

      So what does that leave us with? As you’ve pointed out, the status quo is a huge barrier to social mixing. We can’t enforce it, for reasons I’ve outlined. Which leaves us with one last option that will get enough support to be enacted, and will have the effect of giving us a higher degree of social mixing than we have currently.

      Grammar Schools.

    • Simon Shaw – “Tabman, you display an amazing ignorance of education. You claimed earlier that you live in an (unnamed) city that actually has fewer secondary schools than the medium sized town I live in. What on earth does it mean to say that “the majority of existing comprehensives already are effectively secondary moderns”. It is completely untrue.”

      Well, leaving aside the unjustified ad hominem, there are actually 6 comprehensives in the city that I live in, but one is Catholic so that’s not open entry. There are also a lot of private schools (6 or 7 I think). My very small city is only 40% bigger than your very large town. What this means is that only 1/2to 2/3 of the school population is educated in “mixed” comprehensives – so they are, in effect Secondary Moderns in terms of their intake. I’ve never claimed any “comprehensive” uses academic selection (although I note specialist academies can select up to 10% – and all this from one who has a “startling ignorance of education”) and its fatuous of you to claim otherwise.

    • Julian Critchley 2nd Feb '14 - 9:48am


      I agree that this is an almost impossible nut to crack.

      On the plus side, this is an issue which is very London-centric. The capital has many areas where streets of great wealth are very close to poor estates, and thus we have the problem of schools which theoretically could serve both rich and poor rapidly becoming socially exclusive (and I agree, you then get a chicken-and-egg house-price/intake issue). Outside London, this is a rarer situation. In much of the country, children just go to their local schools, and affluent parents moving house to ensure their child gets into a school filled with other middle-class children is less of an issue. In a lot of the country, kids just go to their nearest school, and are fine for the experience.

      On the negative side, I don’t see grammar schools as any kind of answer. We know that grammar schools where they exist are the most socially-segregated schools in the state sector, and the reason is clear : affluent parents can and will pay for pre-test tuition for their primary-age children, as well as offering the usual “soft” advantages like their own education levels, books in the home, cultural experiences etc. Poorer parents can’t.

      I think the problem is this nonsense about “good” and “bad” schools. We have developed a narrative in education policy that every child is the same, has the same academic potential, and the only thing which affects their ultimate results is either their own effort or the school’s quality. This means that when child A gets lower grades than child B, it can be blamed on either child A’s school, or on the child himself. Yet it is entirely possible that child A’s grades represent the very best that child could ever achieve, having worked incredibly hard and been well-supported by the school. Children have different abilities, and by the time they hit secondary school, those abilities are very set (one could argue that by the time they hit primary school, much of the scaffolding is already in place).

      The single most frustrating aspect of being a teacher and suffering the appalling nonsense of Gove&Wilshaw for 3 years, is this endless repetition that all the child As, and all their schools, are “failures”. The frankly evil statements that the child hasn’t worked hard enough (as if hard work is the only requirement to do well academically), or that the school has “low expectations”. It means that those policymakers can duck the real issue in education, which is how can we design an education system which produces valuable outcomes for all children of widely different abilities. Instead, what we have is an education system which is narrowing rapidly, in which there is just one template for “success” – the ebacc, under Gove – and any child who does not achieve this is a failure.

      I know that many people decry vocational qualifications, but by 2010, we were beginning to see something of a triumph in those fields – children who were not in any way academic were achieving qualifications in fields such as health and social care, or travel and tourism. Pooh-poohed by the academic chatterati, these were actually succeeding in helping less able children into work in much-needed areas, and giving them the confidence that they could succeed. They were actually working. My school’s health and social care qualification had much better post-school employment rates than our A-level/degree students ! It was almost as if we had a genuine comprehensive which could provide a useful education for all children of different backgrounds and abilities.

      Then along came Gove. Health and social care was swept away. All those children who used to study vocational qualifications were forced to student ebacc GCSEs. Unsurprisingly, they are failing those GCSEs in large numbers, because they were never going to have the academic ability to succeed in them. Instead of leaving school with useful qualifications and confidence, they leave school with nothing, as publicly humiliated failures. This is criminal. Absolutely criminal. Yet nobody challenges it because Gove divides the world into those with high expectations and those with low, those who are “good” and those who are “weak”. And which head is ever going to be brave enough to stand up and say to OFSTED that ebacc results be damned, only to be condemned as an “enemy of promise” ?

      We all know that children have different abilities. Only a fool would state that every 11 year-old has exactly the same academic capacity. Yet our policies are based on that very same nonsense. All the flagship policies of this government have been based on the idea that the prime determinant of outcomes is not the children, but the school : academies, free schools, chains, ever more prescriptive lessons and policies from OFSTED. None of which helps a single child. None of which addresses the key issue of how we provide a useful education for our less academic children. None of which even pretends to address the fact that most children’s life chances are already boosted or crippled before they even get to school. Instead, we carry on talking about “good” schools and “weak” schools, and labelling half our kids failures because they haven’t achieved what they were never going to be able to achieve. Because it’s easier to speak in soundbites about “high expectations” and “no excuses culture”, and to blame and tinker with schools, than it would be to actually devise an education system which works for the society we have, rather than the fantasy society in which everyone is the same.

      Sorry. I know I’m ranting. You have no idea how frustrating this is. Imagine if it wasn’t just the little boy shouting that the emperor had no clothes on, but several hundred thousand adults were all bellowing it; yet the emperor continues to stride around in his birthday suit, occasionally ordering his guard dogs to bite anyone who points out his nakedness. After a while, it wears one down a little.

    • Steve Coltman 2nd Feb '14 - 1:08pm

      The grammar school I went to in the ’60s and ’70s did not seem particularly socially segregated. Those that remain I suspect would not be typical of the hundreds that have been abolished. I would not favour a return to the system we had when I was at school, I remember some secondary modern pupils mentioned in the local paper as getting 8 decent O-Level results, demonstrating that the 11-plus was a crude way to select pupils. We need something better than that. But on the other hand, the needs, abilities and aspirations of pupils vary so enormously that I cannot imagine how one school, one curriculum and one ethos can work for all of them. In the town with 15 schools as mentioned above I would like to see more like 5+5+5, grammar, technical and secondary modern. The 1944 act was supposed to be tripartite but so few Technical schools were built it became an ‘us-and-them’ system. Had 30% of pupils attended Technical Schools instead of 5%, the politics of it all would have been very different.

    • Nigel Jones 2nd Feb '14 - 9:17pm

      I feel frustrated at the comment made by our new deputy leader Sir Malcolm Bruce today. He continued the leadership line that Lib-Dems support Michael Gove’s policies on Academies and Free Schools.
      How can one of our chief representatives say such a thing in the light not only of this survey, but our actual party policy decided soon after the coalition was formed ????

    • Peter Watson 2nd Feb '14 - 10:27pm

      @Nigel Jones “How can one of our chief representatives say such a thing in the light not only of this survey, but our actual party policy decided soon after the coalition was formed ????”
      In many ways this sums up my problem with the Lib Dems. I come to LibDemVoice looking for reasons to return to the fold. I read a survey like this (and the parallel one on qualified teachers), and comments by Julian, Helen, Simon, et al. and I start to think maybe this is still the party for me. Then I see the [insert naughty words here] in the parliamentary party and I want to vote against them at every opportunity.

    • Tabman 1st Feb ’14 – 9:27pm. – entered a recently ex secondary modern in 1980. Mixed ability teaching. Dreadful for all concerned. And made worse by knowing what could have been.

      This is interesting as it indicates you are in your forties. Your secondary school years would have been underThatcher. My guess is that would have been terrible whichever school you were at. I am particularly interested in your comment on your own experience that – “the flame that would have been nurtured in a grammar school was snuffed out “. This was not my experience either as grammar school pupil or as a parent of children at state grammar schools over three decades. Many children at grammar schools do not have the experience of a flame being nurtured. Some of us had to struggle like mad to get noticed and to overcome the prejudice of teachers who assumed that our background would be a limit to our future possibilities, a self-fulfilling prophesy for some. In my school some teachers were appalling snobs and this had an impact of the way they taught and the horizons that they set. Others were brilliant in a nmber of ways. But grammar schools were varied, just like the techers in them were vaired, some were good, some were bad. You seem to have a romantic view of these schools.

      You obviously are very interested in education and have regrets about your own. You have posted around 30 comments in this thread. Like Simon I would be interested to know which small city . Are you involved in schools now, either as a teacher or parent? I would be interested in what sparks your interest. Please tell us more .

    • Julian Critchley 2nd Feb ’14 – 1:10am
      Hang on, I hear you cry – middle class parents are desperate to send their kids to “good” schools. Well here’s some “outstanding” ones, right on their doorstep, yet they still go to great lengths not to send their kids there. Well, well. It’s almost as if this whole debate is just one great big lie. Almost as if, for plenty of parents, what they really want is to be able to socially segregate their middle-class children from the nasty working class kids, EVEN IF THE LOCAL SCHOOL IS “GOOD”.

      Julian Critchley sums up, here, in a few sentences what is wrong with the education debate. He indetifies precisely what many middle-class parents want, even if they will not admit it.

    • Simon Shaw, on the contrary, Southport is a pretty large town (I might draw the line at very large). My town (Exmouth) is a medium sized town (“largest town in Devon”, which excludes Torbay, as a Borough / Unitary and the two cities). Wiki describes Southport as “large town”. Tabman, have you moved? Even on a restricted basis, your city is well over 3 times the size of Southport!

    • Shirley Campbell 3rd Feb '14 - 1:19pm

      The problem is that too many politicians lead lives that are far removed from the lives of their constituents. I am an avid supporter of properly run and properly financed local comprehensive schools. My enthusiasm for comprehensive schools is based on the anecdotal, the practical and the theoretical.

      Firstly, the anecdotal would no doubt surprise the privately educated multi lingual Nick Clegg, not to mention Michael Gove. Last summer, one of my great nephews, a grandson of one of my sisters, gained multiple Grade A* GCSEs at a mixed ability comprehensive school and, commendably, three of the A*s were in modern foreign languages: French, Italian and Spanish; he intends to gain good A level grades and go on to university to study modern foreign languages and history. Bless him! He has a little brother who is eleven and he wants to go to Harvard and study economics. Another great nephew, the grandson of another sister, attended a mixed ability comprehensive and gained A grades in A’ level Maths, Physics and Chemistry back in 2008. He studied Maths and Physics at a “Russell” group university and I hear that he is now completing a PhD. Many of my friends have grandchildren at mixed ability comprehensive schools and they are pleased with the progress of their grandchildren, whatever their aptitudes. I conclude, anecdotally, that the young people who are in the top stream of their comprehensive school are able to achieve as much as those who have attended grammar and private schools.

      Secondly, the practical aspect of well-funded comprehensive schools is self-explanatory in that they are able to offer a huge range of subjects along with English, Maths and Science. Certainly, young people are offered a huge range of subject choices these days and, surely, schools need to be large enough to warrant employing specialist teachers in each and every discipline. Free schools! So, will “Free Schools” have the finances to employ specialist Maths and Physics teachers who can teach to A’ level standard? Subject knowledge, subject knowledge, subject knowledge!

      Thirdly, the theory of a comprehensive secondary education for all young people in neighbourhood schools is sound; however, it remains a theory and the practice will never be implemented. I am astonished when I witness the efforts that parents have to go through these days just to get their children into a secondary school. I understand that many parents are barred from sending their children to the local mixed ability comprehensive school even if they might wish to do so. Are our politicians of all persuasions aware of this?

      Tim, I know of Exmouth Community College, since back in the 1990s both of the sons of a friend of mine attended Exmouth CC and both won places to Cambridge University. Fact.

    • I would like to have known what Lib Dems felt about ‘faith’ schools.

    • Steve Comer 3rd Feb '14 - 2:05pm

      I wonder why polls never ask the question in a different way?
      How about “The government should encourage more schools to select by academic ability and build more Secondary Modern schools”……………….I reckon we might get a different response.

    • Shirley, despite my rating of our town as “medium sized”, our Community College has at various times been the largest in the country, and I am afraid I am old enough to have attended its predecessor Grammar School. It has, as a comprehensive, had high and low periods, and is currently, like many, an academy, with some 2,400 students from various parts of East Devon. It currently enjoys a good reputation generally among residents.

      Steve Comer – I very much agree with your question, and indeed always argue that with proponents of Grammars! After education to age 16 in Devon, I went to the Isle of Wight, and at that time, they had superb secondary schools, and many Secondary Modern pupils achieved good O Levels, and a good number went on to Uni and other HE institutions. So the 11+ (or even the 13+) was no bar to later development there. But my experience tells me it was very much the exception.

    • Peter Watson 3rd Feb '14 - 11:20pm

      @Shirley Campbell
      I agree entirely with what you have written here: you make some excellent points and you make them well.

    • David Evershed 16th Apr '14 - 4:55pm

      It is disappointing that 75% if Lib Dems are against good schools on ideological grounds just because they can make a profit from it.

      Should hospitals refuse drugs from companies that make a profit or insisit the infrastructure should be built only by non profit making companies.

      Liberals have always beleved in capitalism and free trade.

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