The Government should scrap the 11-plus test to determine which children go to grammar schools – or force all pupils to take it – if it wants to improve social mobility, according to one of the Department for Education’s main champions for new schools.
Toby Young, the director of the New Schools Network (NSN), which plays a key role in delivering free schools and grammars, said the decision for which children go to grammar schools could be handed over to primary headteachers. Simply letting existing selective schools replicate themselves as they are will do nothing to improve social mobility, he added.
Speaking exclusively to The Independent, Mr Young said he believed “no more than five” grammar schools would open by the end of the current Government.
Asked if that was five schools too many, he said: “Wearing my NSN hat, no comment.” But made clear his personal view was that there was “no strong case for opening new grammars in areas already served by good state comprehensives”.
While school groups will be encouraged to open the selective schools in disadvantaged areas, Mr Young said “there may be one or two exceptions”, and did not rule out the possibility of grammars opening in affluent areas of the country.
His comments follow an announcement in the spring Budget on Wednesday that a further £320m is to be set aside for the opening of around 140 new free schools – some of which will be grammars - should the Government get the green light to lift the current ban on their expansion.
Defending the plans, Prime Minister Theresa May has argued that grammar schools can improve the prospects of children from poorer backgrounds and their expansion will help end the current “selection by stealth” system within state comprehensive schools.
The move comes amid fierce resistance from campaigners, however, and follows the publication of a number of scathing reports detailing both the financial and potential social costs of free schools, which are independent of local authority.
Grammar schools in particular have been contested by social mobility groups such as the Sutton Trust, which insists the enforced segregation of children of different abilities only widens the gap between rich and poor pupils.
It is, according to Mr Young, a “problem that is going to be addressed” as plans are drawn up between the Department for Education and NSN for expansion.
“Exactly what form that takes I don’t know, but it could be a national test as opposed to a test devised by a school or a local authority,” he said. “It could be a test that doesn’t include any general knowledge questions, just progressive matrices and verbal reasoning.
“It could be for all children to take at the end of primary school – or we could do away with the test altogether and ask primaries to nominate [top-performing children],” he said. “Back in the grammar school heyday that is how some grammar schools admitted children – they just went on headteachers’ recommendations.”
The difficulty with trying to create a “tutor-proof test”, he added, is that it is in the very nature of tests that children can practice and get better – particularly for a child born into a supportive, aspirational middle-class family.
In his new role as director of the New Schools Network, the journalist turned educationalist has been careful to ensure his professional views are non-partisan.
Speaking in a personal capacity, however, Mr Young – himself a grammar-school alumus – admits his own opinions on selective schooling continue to waver.
He said he had no issue with faith schools and felt positively about selection by aptitude – arguing parents wanted “choice” and the creation of specialist schools from maths academies to Brit School equivalents would be put forward for new school openings.
On grammar schools, however, he was less confident: “The truth is I’ve come down on both sides of the fence and I feel really conflicted about it,” he said. “At the moment certainly most of the beneficiaries [of grammar schools] are for middle-class children like I was.
“If you just let existing grammars replicate themselves then it doesn’t seem likely they’ll have a huge impact on social mobility, because they don’t admit enough children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
However, he said he didn’t believe this alone was a “knock-down argument” against opening more grammars, “because there are things you can do to incentivise them to admit more children from less privileged backgrounds”.
There are currently 163 grammar schools in England with a total of 167,000 pupils. These pupils, according to Government figures, are much less likely to have special education needs or be eligible for free school meals that average.
Grammar schools also have a slightly higher than average proportion of non-white pupils.
Should the Government succeed in getting the ban lifted, one of the ways in which NSN hopes to be working with grammars is to set up feeder primary schools within disadvantaged communities, which could offer coaching in preparation for such a national test.
“One of the reasons I’ve said in the past that grammars haven’t done much for social mobility is that the percentage of children getting into grammars on free school meals is so low,” he added.
“In fact, the proportion of children being offered places at grammars from independent prep schools is higher than that of children on free school meals.
“You can do stuff about that – you could say to a proposer group, ‘You’ll only be allowed to open this grammar school if you accept more than the local authority average of children on free school meals’.”
In an ideal world, Mr Young said, he would create a system that ensured selective schools take more than the average number of children on free school meals – a common indicator of poverty – than the local authority average.
Proposer groups – which can be independent parties of parents, educators, charities or businesses – would be encouraged to open schools in areas of need and have systems in place to encourage diversity. However, he said it was “unlikely” the DfE would mandate this.
Lifting the ban would also make “partial selection” possible – a model he admires and hopes to develop – whereby a small percentage of each year group is selected for a flexible “grammar stream” according to their performance levels.
There are examples of high-performing partially selective schools already in place – Ashlawn School in Rugby, for example, selects 12 per cent of each year group depending on their performance in the Warwickshire 11-plus.
The remainder of each year group is mixed ability, creating a grammar stream which children can move in and out of as their grades fluctuate.
“It might create an incentive for children to work harder,” said Mr Young, “but the really attractive thing about that model is that you get the more able children helping to pull some of the other children up.
“One of the arguments against grammars is that by creaming off the most able children, those pupils are no longer there to have a positive impact on their peers.
“The thing about partially selective schools is that you get this movement in and out of the grammar stream and it means you are not herding children into sheep and goats at age 11, because the sorting process is fluid up until GCSEs.”
The idea of any selection within education is one that sits badly with comprehensive advocates. But Mr Young, who was co-founder of the country’s first free school in west London, is no stranger to criticism.
His appointment as NSN director was attacked as a “PR gimmick” by shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, who has reportedly refused to engage with him in debate on air.
He is unapologetically outspoken on Twitter, adding that he has “had to think a littler harder” about his tweets before starting the new job. “I have to put my phone down before 9pm,” he said.
In defence of free schools, however, he remained clear: “Most people imagine them as whacky and progressive in which children can do whatever they like and the teachers have no authority, but this is simply not the case.
“The truth of the matter is the Government needs to create more school places, and free schools are proven to be the less expensive way forward.”
Mr Young's comments came as it emerged the Government is looking at a major shakeup of the 11-plus that would see grammar schools forced to accept lower pass marks for poorer pupils.
Details of the proposal are set to be announced in April, according to The Times.