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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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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