Academics, education unions and politicians of every hue have attacked government plans for more grammar schools, warning that selection does not improve social mobility and will not solve the challenges facing schools in the next decade.
It follows confirmation from the new education secretary, Kit Malthouse, that the prime minister has tasked him to look at areas of England that would like to open new grammar schools, as well as those that want to expand existing grammars.
In an interview with the Yorkshire Post during a college visit this week, Malthouse said: “The prime minister made it clear during the leadership contest that she wanted to see work on grammar schools, fundamentally because there is a desire from parents in some parts of the country to have them.
“We’re about parental choice, everyone needs to be able to make a choice for their kids. So we’re looking at that policy seriously and looking at areas that want to have it or indeed grammar schools that want to expand.”
Liz Truss, who has sent her daughters to grammar school, will however face widespread opposition, including from modernisers within her own party who saw off an earlier attempt to revive grammar schools more widely back in 2016 when Theresa May was prime minister.
Just 163 grammar schools remain in England and there has been a ban on opening any new ones since 1998. Any lifting of that ban, which was introduced by the Labour government, would require primary legislation. Though the government has a large majority in the Commons, it would face strong opposition in the House of Lords.
Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers and a longtime supporter of grammar schools, is reported to be planning to table an amendment to the government’s recent schools bill to try to lift the ban.
David Johnston, the Conservative MP for Wantage and former chair of the Social Mobility Foundation, warned that bringing back grammar schools would be deeply divisive for the country and within the Conservative party.
Writing in the Spectator, he said: “I know grammar schools are popular with the membership and my view won’t be. But bringing them back would be a serious misstep for education policy. They are a distraction from what we should be doing, they serve the wealthy not the poor – and they don’t work.”
Steve Mastin, a former head of history at a state secondary school and vice-president of the Conservative Education Society, said he would be speaking out against grammar schools at the Conservative party conference. “Grammar schools reduce parental choice. It’s the school which selects, not the parents. And 80% of the pupils in the country will be rejected from going to a grammar school.”
The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, said grammar schools were “a distraction tactic” from a government that has run out of ideas. “Grammars make up a tiny minority of schools, they don’t improve educational outcomes and parents don’t want them – they want the education secretary to raise standards across our comprehensive schools.”
The Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, Munira Wilson, said it was “a desperate attempt” by the Tories to mask their own failures. “Rather than supporting children who are working hard to catch up on their lost learning, the Conservatives would rather impose top-down rules about the sorts of schools that can be built in communities.”
Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at Exeter University, warned that introducing new grammar schools without strong measures to ensure access for children from all backgrounds would create “an exclusive cadre of middle-class schools, certainly not engines of social mobility in any way at all”.
Jon Andrews, the head of analysis at the Education Policy Institute, said it was an “aged debate” detracting from the real issues schools face. “Whether it be reducing educational inequalities, combatting teacher shortages, or even just supporting schools in meeting vastly increased operational costs, grammar schools aren’t the solution.”
Dr Nuala Burgess, the chair of the campaigning group Comprehensive Future, said: “It is massively concerning that a new, untried government can choose to sweep aside all reason and the weight of evidence which shows the very limited value of grammar schools for a tiny minority of children.
“Ask any parent what they want for their child’s education and it certainly isn’t ‘more grammar schools’. Parents want well-funded, well-resourced schools.”
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the expansion of grammar schools was “purely ideological”. He said the important issues facing the education sector remain funding and teacher shortages. “Addressing these issues would make the greatest difference in improving outcomes for all pupils which is surely what any government should make its priority.”
Sally Weale, education correspondent
As the government draws up plans for more grammar schools in England, a new website has been launched to give voice to parents, pupils and teachers who have first-hand experience of the 11-plus test and its impact.
About 100,000 children currently sit the 11-plus every year to gain a place at one of the surviving 163 grammar schools. Here are some of the comments from the 11+ Anonymous site, set up by the campaigning group Comprehensive Future.
On the stress of the test, one father in Kent, where the grammar system still operates, said: “A few nights before the test, I looked at the search history on my daughter’s tablet. The last search read, ‘How to cope when you’re panicking about something’. A 10-year-old!”
On tuition, one Sevenoaks mother said: “We have spent £2,000 in tutoring fees over the past year. Everyone I know does this. I’m envious of friends who live in areas where there are just good comprehensives. No stress for the 10 year old, no sense of failure, just the quality free education they are entitled to.”
An 11-plus tutor in Trafford, Greater Manchester, where there are grammars, said: “I’ve seen many very bright children not pass due to exam nerves and less able children hit lucky on the day and pass. For many children of a broadly similar ability the exam becomes little more than a lottery of luck rather than a test of ability.”
A mother in Trafford said she knew of several children who have become ill under the weight of expectation. “Children who don’t pass often suffer significant, sometimes lifelong, damage to their self-esteem. No child should be put through this to get a good education and no child should be labelled a failure at 10 or 11 years old.”
On the long term impact of the 11-plus, a 63-year-old grandmother said: “The 11-plus test had such a negative impact on me and created self-esteem issues that persist to this day. I am not stupid. But I have had issues with low self-esteem regarding my intellect and worth since I ‘failed’ that blasted awful test back in 1969.”