Government Announces Plans to Open More Grammar School Places
On May 11, Education Secretary Damian Hinds unveiled plans for a £50m expansion fund to allow grammar schools to provide additional places and in some cases to build off-site annexes. This comes a year and a half after the government published its Green Paper in 2016, “Schools that work for everyone”, which had announced plans to create new grammar schools. That plan would have required changes to the law. However, Theresa May’s lost majority in the 2017 general election resulted in a retreat from that attempt. Instead, the new plans work within current legislation to allow existing grammar schools to expand. Grammar schools will also be able to open new sites, which can be a significant distance away from their original base. These are effectively new grammar schools, new in all but name. One such annex has already opened 10 miles from its parent school in Kent.
The plans have been met with broad opposition. Responding to the announcement, Natalie Perera, Executive Director of the Education Policy Institute (EPI), wrote: “Creating more grammar school places is unlikely to improve social mobility and poses a particular threat to outcomes for disadvantaged children. Our research finds that, as the number of grammar places increases, a penalty emerges for all pupils who live nearby but don’t get in and this penalty is larger for disadvantaged pupils than non-disadvantaged pupils. Indeed, the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is wider in wholly selective areas than in non-selective areas.”
Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner said: “The continued obsession with grammar schools will do nothing for the vast majority of children. It is absurd for ministers to push ahead with plans to expand them when the evidence is clear they do nothing to improve social mobility.”
Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union Kevin Courtney responded: “The grammar school corpse has climbed out of its coffin once again despite evidence of the damage that selective education causes.” It “beggars belief that the Government has announced it will plough £50 million to expand the number of places at existing selective grammar schools. Schools up and down the country are desperately short of funds. This is money that would be better invested in ensuring all schools could provide for the basic needs of their pupils,” he added.
Character of the Education System
The plans to effectively create new grammar schools come at a time when the ongoing policy of austerity is creating serious problems in the mainstream state comprehensive system to the extent that some schools are struggling to stay in operation. It has been reported that it is the schools with the poorest pupils – those with the highest number on free school meals – that are being subjected to the heaviest cuts. While the the annual average spending per head in a state school is around £5,000, the typical fee for a top private school now surpasses £17,000 per year. There is also evidence showing how comprehensives in the lower-income working-class areas experience greater teacher turnover, with teachers on average less qualified. These are just some examples of the increasingly-tiered education system, with first, second and even third-class and lower secondary education available, and illustrates the connection with the ever-widening gap between rich and poor.
The point of the comprehensive system was to provide a national standard secondary-level education to all under the control of the public authority. That system was a product of the post-war social democratic era and had its heyday in the 1960s and 70s. As has been the pattern with other flagship initiatives and arrangements of that period, such as the NHS, the system began to be undermined with the abandonment of social democracy and the turn to neo-liberal arrangements in the 1980s. In particular, the 1988 Education Reform Act introduced competition and market forces under the signboard of “choice”.
One of the main features of the shift from the comprehensive system to the current neo-liberal model is the move from a national standard of education for all to the notion of education providing “opportunity”. This is connected to the idea that education is a privilege rather than a right, as well as the idea that education is an individual matter rather than a matter of social responsibility, opening the door for “choice” and competition to enter the mix.
A widespread desire to end class privilege was a key influence on the development of the comprehensive system in the post-war period. The 1959 Crowther report had identified that the majority of grammar school pupils were consistently from wealthier backgrounds. The issue is the same today, with recent government statistics showing similar trends.
Government’s Plan to Serve Class Privilege
How can this be squared with the government’s claim that it plans to create a system of “opportunity”? The 2016 Green Paper announced new “selective schools providing more school places, and ensuring that they are open to children from all backgrounds”. At the same time, in her speech to the Conservative Party Conference, Theresa May gave her vision for a “meritocracy”.
Talk of meritocracy is a smokescreen for elitism. The levels of privilege and deprivation speak for themselves. Meritocracy has nothing to do with rights. Rather, it is to preserve a system of ever-starker class division, to give such a society the veneer of legitimacy that those with wealth and power have privilege through merit.
The early capitalists engaged in relatively small-scale production abolished the old notions of divine right and feudal hierarchy, with their own views of natural aristocracy. This “meritocratic” ideology was meant to justify their position of privilege as the naturally fittest for their status, the most intelligent, etc. It had a coherence in serving their aim to become the leading class of the nation at that time.
Talk of meritocracy in the present, under the conditions of a capitalism dominated by the most powerful multinational monopolies, has no such coherence. The elitism of the grammar school system is a throwback to those outdated anti-human notions of natural ability and intelligence. Rather than see young people in their life and motion, it imposes a definition on them based on the most arbitrary of tests. It is a violation of their rights.
The capital-centric education system is a production line for school and university graduates who have the skills required by private businesses, particularly the largest and most powerful, in their state of mutual competition. This does not require all-sided development of the population. It is a system designed to allocate people to their place. Aspiration and striving for something better is reduced to personal advancement and individual competition, rather than full participation in society.
The Alternative Vision for Education
The alternative, modern vision for education takes as its starting-point that the youth are the future of society. As such, it is aimed at contributing to their development so that they can take up the problems of society for solution. This vision recognises education as a right that should be available at the highest level to all. A modern education system is organised around the aim of guaranteeing that right.
 Department for Education, “Schools that work for everyone”, September 12, 2016, https://consult.education.gov.uk/school-frameworks/schools-that-work-for-everyone
 Fiona Millar, “This zombie grammar school policy will only harm crisis-hit schools”, The Guardian, May 13, 2018
 EPI response to Government plans for proposals in “Schools that work for everyone” consultation, May 11, 2018, https://epi.org.uk/news/2018-schools-that-work-for-everyone
 Kevin Courtney, NEU press release, May 11, 2018, https://neu.org.uk/latest/school-places
 Frances Ryan, “Choice is code for inequality, and it has polluted our education system”, The Guardian, May 3, 2018