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Wake up and smell the coffee: grammar schools don't work

The debate has moved on, and it's time the Tories did too, says Angela Rayner. 

The cat is well and truly out of the bag. After David Cameron managed to hold off his right-wing backbenches for almost 10 years, it would seem the new Prime Minister has not even lasted the first few months.

She appears to have accepted the assumption that new grammar schools will improve social mobility, and help poorer children out of a cycle of perpetual disadvantage. But we have 70 years of evidence now, which demonstrates the exact opposite.

We have only learnt about this through reports of secret briefings to Tory MPs and documents photographed on the way in to Number 10. The Education Secretary even tried to deny today that there was any policy at all, despite the Prime Minister’s quoted words and the Cabinet paper that we have all read in the national media. From the way the Tories have gone about this, you would think they were actually quite embarrassed – and they should be.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, including the white-working class boys that the Prime Minister spoke about on the steps of Downing Street when she took office, are not the children that stand to benefit from these new grammar schools. 

In fact poorer children in local authorities that currently operate a grammar school system perform worse than those in non-selective authorities, and are far less likely to score highly at GCSE.

Far from aiding social mobility, this policy will just create social division. According to the Sutton Trust, only three per cent of pupils in grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, compared with an average of 15 per cent of children in receipt of free school meals across all state schools. 

This segregation affects these children for the rest of their lives. The Institute for Education found that the wage gap between the highest and lowest earners in selective local authorities is higher than in non-selective areas.

In the perceived “golden-age” of the grammar system in the 50s, which Tory backbenchers seem to look back to through rose-tinted glasses, almost 40 per cent of the children selected failed to achieve more than 3 O-Levels. This system failed to provide Britain with the dynamic, skilled workforce that we still need today.

The claim that they are “fundamental to social mobility” just does not stand up. The truth is that those children at the remaining grammar schools today are overwhelmingly the lucky few whose parents can afford tuition for the 11 Plus – and the Sutton Trust has recently revealed that a fifth of paid tuition in England and Wales is for the grammar school entrance exam.   

Sir Michael Wilshaw pointed out this week that in Hackney the attainment gap at GCSE level between the most affluent and most disadvantaged pupils is 14 per cent. In Kent, one of the few counties that still operates a grammar school system, it is 34 per cent.

And nobody in the government who supports new grammar schools has been honest enough to talk about new secondary moderns, the natural consequence of allowing new grammar schools to change the intakes of existing local comprehensives.

The Prime Minister has said that her approach to policy will be to assemble the evidence, look at the evidence, and then come to a decision. That is the test she has set herself. To push forward with new grammar schools as the centre piece of her education policy would fail that test spectacularly.

She has pledged to make Britain a country that works for everyone, and give everyone the opportunity to go as far as their talents will take them.

But far from promoting social mobility, the government has actually overseen an education system in which the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is now widening.

New grammar schools are not a solution to that. At best they are just a distraction from it.

The government are not so keen to address what existing schools are facing right now. There are chronic shortages of teachers, after years of missed government targets for recruiting new trainees and demoralising the profession. The number of teachers quitting – some 50,000 last year – is at a record high.

If the Prime Minister is serious about improving social mobility, she would do well to listen to her predecessor who warned his backbenches almost a decade ago that their obsession with grammar schools was “splashing around in the shallow end of the educational debate.”

The education debate has moved on, and it is time the Tories did too.

Angela Rayner is Labour MP for Ashton-under-Lyne and shadow education secretary.

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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.