Education Secretary Justine Greening’s decision to focus her attention on a deliberate expansion of selective schooling through an extension of the grammar system has proved, with a certain inevitability, to be controversial. Her critics warn that, rather than encourage social mobility, selection by academic ability always achieves the opposite.
Those who seek to benefit from the policy, they say, are those who already have the best of life chances, by virtue of the socioeconomic status and the cultural and academic interests of their parents. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned the policy might be when made in Whitehall, the reality of its execution is predictable: private tuition and prep school primary education, for those who can afford it, allows children from middle class backgrounds to excel when tested at age 11.
And the other result? A generation labelled failures before they’ve even begun their academic careers.
Despite such controversy, the policy is nevertheless popular among many floating and Conservative voters. Just as rose-tinted false recollections of an England that never truly existed appeared to drive the appetite of many Brexit voters in last year’s EU referendum, so there are those of a certain age – and, importantly, some of them now forging their careers in Westminster – who believe the grammar school system provided opportunities to the gifted that, in truth, it has never offered.
There are those whom it lifted out of poverty, no doubt; but there are many more, including the writers Richard Hoggart and Lynsey Hanley, who more accurately describe the social segregation that occurred within grammars, between the richer and poorer pupils, and a generation cut off from their own families by the social engineering the system of selection encouraged.
Ms Greening’s biggest mistake, however, is not to resurrect an education strategy no longer relevant to today’s society, but to allow herself to be distracted from a much more important issue facing education today in doing so – namely, the recruitment crisis in the teaching profession and the factors which contribute to it.
The first is the effect of cumulative funding cuts and constant curriculum overhauls. Not only are teachers themselves being stretched too thinly, but there have been cutbacks to support staff, including teaching assistants, whose expertise helps them to do their job well. Now the effects are being felt, in important areas such as classroom discipline. As we report today, tens of millions of pounds are being paid out in compensation to teachers who have been attacked by pupils while at work – and the number of teachers claiming five-figure sums is also going up, suggesting incidents are getting more serious as classroom support diminishes. Unions had warned this situation would arise. Now it is not only putting teachers in a dangerous situation but it is also costing large sums from the public purse to resolve.
Meanwhile, schools are not yet an egalitarian workplace. A survey conducted by the race equality think tank Runnymede Trust, published today, found evidence of an “invisible glass ceiling” for black and ethnic minority (BME) teachers preventing them reaching the most senior roles in the profession. BME staff are more likely to be given stereotypical roles in the classroom, such as taking responsibility for Black History Month, even if their academic expertise lies far outside the disciplines of history, sociology or human geography. They are also more likely to be allocated disruptive classes, or mentoring responsibility for the most challenging pupils. The National Union of Teachers does not shy away from labelling this racism.
Little use it will be creating a new generation of elite grammars when these underlying, insidious problems remain unsolved across the full breadth of the state education system.