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The Grammar schools debate

2018-04-06T10:04:45+00:00 September 14th, 2016|
Do you remember the summer? Can I?
Less than a month ago, Bradford Grammar School was celebrating outstanding AS and A Level results and the safe passage of our outgoing upper Sixth Form to university and pastures green, cheering passionately at the TV as two former pupils romped home to gold and silver medal triathlon success in Rio, and delighting in record-breaking GCSEs.

Wind the clock back one week and we were welcoming new arrivals for their first ‘proper’ day of BGS life, gathering in the Price Hall for the start of term assembly. Pupils new and old were writing homework timetables neatly into planners, eagerly using brand new highlighters and post-it notes for the first time, remembering to underline titles and dates in exercise books and busily catching up on the holiday gossip.

And since then?

A week in a school like BGS is a long time given how much learning and broader activity we pack in. Fresh faced Year 7 pupils have got lost on the way to lessons whilst navigating our corridors (and new teachers carrying piles of books have been observed doing likewise).

I’ve given my second assembly of the new year and already witnessed a yawn in the seated masses (that didn’t take long), we’ve won, lost and drawn at sport and collected silverware at the Bradford Regatta, handed in the first set of homework, reacquainted ourselves with the excellent school pizza and been asked to tuck our shirt in at least once.

In short, school life is up and running much as it should be, much as it ever was. Routine established.

So, it’s business as usual then?

I’d like to say ‘yes’, but whilst BGS moves along to its daily rhythm the UK school scene is being stirred up once again by the Theresa May and Justine Greening combo and everyone is looking around wondering, and trying to work out, what it means for them. Education-oriented opinion and argument is largely polarised – selection vs comprehensivism, social justice vs inequality, grammars vs multi academy trusts – unsettling for many and, to cap it all, my phone has just pinged to tell me that The Great British Bake Off is moving from the BBC to Channel 4. Honestly, what on earth is going on?

Whilst the BGS engine begins to motor smoothly and gather pace, Theresa May set out her government’s green paper plans for education including an end to the 20-year ban on opening new grammar schools. Squint at the press bulletins and the fine details of May’s grand design and they begin to aggregate, to my mind, into ten key points, which are:

Build new grammar schools
Expand existing ones
Allow existing non-selective comprehensives to introduce an element of selection where there is demand for it
Ring-fence £50 million to fund grammar school growth and selective state education
Facilitate pupil movement, collaboration and resource-sharing between grammar schools and comprehensives
Guard against any return to perceived binary school system of the 1950s
Help the children of poorer families by targeting disadvantaged areas for school expansion and guaranteeing some of them places in the new grammars
More selection by faith
Apply greater pressure on universities and independent schools to widen access to disadvantaged young people
Force independent schools to do more to warrant their charitable status.
Phew! Have I missed anything?

And all this at a time of curriculum change, exam turmoil, shrinking education budgets, a deepening teacher recruitment crisis and a projected shortfall of 750,000 school places over the next ten years.

Oh yes, and something about Brexit?

Could one be forgiven for thinking that we are all being distracted from these longer running, slower burning but nonetheless significant issues that are affecting our schools and our children? It was posturing and anxiety over the formation of multi-academy trusts that not so long ago captured our attention. Today, and no doubt for some time to come, it is the evocative, guaranteed to excite the Tory faithful and fill column inches, pro/anti-grammar media ping-pong that will hold our collective gaze.

The debate is already entrenched; but however you choose to cut your cloth on the grammar issue one thing is clear, when grammar schools were last introduced by virtue of the 1944 Butler Education Act there was at least a national plan in place. This Act established a mechanism for creating a tripartite framework of technical, secondary modern and grammar schools for children with potential in different directions.

The model failed, many have argued, due to the lack of funding and clear leadership for the technical schools which were too costly to institute as envisaged. We can debate the finer points, chew over the the rights and wrongs, but at least there was an overarching vision, and at this point I will refrain from stating the obvious and drawing uncomfortable comparisons about where we are today in the autumn of 2016.

As for ‘putting greater pressure on’ and ‘forcing’ independent schools to work with maintained sector partners and do more good in their communities, well, to be honest, the Government is pushing at an open door, and they know it. So why do we see so much combative language and politicised striding about to bring ‘posh’ schools ‘divorced from normal life’ to heel? Posturing again for the popular vote? Further distraction?

There are currently 1,112 ISC (Independent Schools Council) schools already involved in meaningful partnerships with maintained sector partners comprising 991 sporting collaborations, 848 academic projects, 616 music and 570 drama initiatives – the list goes on and the majority of these arrangements involve sharing of facilities and expertise.

Add it up and independent schools in the UK contribute £11.7bn Gross Value Added to our economy and save the taxpayer £3.9bn. And, in terms of widening access, which we believe in and cherish, ISC schools, of which BGS is one, devoted £400m to means-tested fee assistance and that total keeps growing annually.

Our Government talks the language of brave school reform, championing opportunity and social mobility. But many perceive yet more tinkering, a reluctance to grasp the real nettles in the educational landscape and a diversion from other significant issues of the moment.

Happily, the noises on the corridor outside my office tell me that the wheels are still turning at BGS and I’ve got a day job to do. So, it’s time to leave my PC, do a lunch duty and enjoy talking to some children. I’ll smile and try to hold back the tide of hungry Year 11s, but it’s lasagne today and I don’t stand a chance. Wish me luck.

“Whilst the BGS engine begins to motor smoothly and gather pace, Theresa May set out her government’s green paper plans for education including an end to the 20-year ban on opening new grammar schools.”

Simon Hinchliffe, Headmaster


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