Grammar schools are not the answer

The Prime Minister claims that her plans to create more grammar schools will enhance social mobility and will help to bring about a truly meritocratic society. They will, she says, create ‘a country that works for everyone’.

Sure. Because grammar schools proved so good at doing just that the first time around.

What Mrs May’s proposals will do, of course, is appeal hugely to the seething mass of baby-boomer Tory voters who just can’t wait to get us back to the good old days of the 1950s and serve as a temporary distraction from the Government’s shambolic approach to all things Brexit.

We should, I suppose, perhaps be grateful that the Prime Minister is at least talking about introducing selection on the basis of academic ability, rather than the religious faith, parental wealth and ability to move to a more desirable postcode that determine how many schools currently choose their students.

And, on a more serious note, we do need to recognise that children and young people differ in their interest and abilities, and that they develop and learn at different rates and in different ways. But grammar schools are not the way to go.

For starters, selecting on the basis of an exam at the age of eleven is silly. It doesn’t tell us anything about children’s potential. It tells us simply how good they are at taking exams when they are eleven. And it’s massively unfair to those who develop at a slower rate. Or who aren’t very good at exams. Or who, for whatever reason, haven’t had a very good education so far.

Furthermore, by creating more grammar schools we’re focusing on the children who we see as the brightest. But these are the ones who will probably do well whatever sort of education we throw at them. We need to pay more attention to those who need a little extra support in order to do well. The children who struggle in class, who don’t get much support at home or whose brains are just wired in a different way. This is where we can make a real difference.

And just as happened when grammar schools were first introduced, we risk creating a two-tier system of state education, where the best go to grammar schools and everyone else gets dumped in the pedagogical equivalent of a sink estate. So it’s social mobility for some, but a second-class education for everyone else.

But what really gets me is that the whole grammar school debate is missing the point. Surely all of our schools should be world class, with access to the very best learning resources that are available. Teaching should be a profession to which our young – and less young – people can aspire, regardless of the school in which they end up working. And every child and young person should receive an education that enables them to reach their full potential.

Only then will we have an education system – and perhaps even a country – that truly works for everyone.

This article was first published in Liberal Democrat Voice.

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