Labour should grab the chance that Michael Gove’s recent Brighton speech has offered to end the dominance of the independently educated, and negotiate to let the old direct grant schools back into the state sector.
The Sutton Trust has done the groundwork. They say that 80 of the best schools in the UK want to return: schools like Manchester Grammar, King Edward’s Birmingham, RGS Newcastle and The Grammar Schools at Leeds want to be able to serve the whole community, as they used to do.
It is the Labour Party’s approval that these schools need – Gove has signalled his support, but they want a settlement for the long term, one that will not be troubled by changes of government. There is, in the Sutton Trust, an intermediary trusted by everyone, well able to facilitate the process. If negotiations go well, Labour could bring St Paul’s, Westminster and others of the great charitable schools along too, and make a decisive change to our educational landscape.
Ending the dominance of independent schools by other means is a slow and uncertain business. At the current rate, it will take a generation or two to get there. Welcoming back a phalanx of great schools (it will be much easier for them to make the move together, rather than facing the critics one by one) will get us there quickly and certainly.
Schools returning to the state system would operate a needs-blind admissions system, with affordable fees dependent on parental wealth. Admission rules would be crafted and monitored to make sure that all children had an equal chance of admission, and that advantage could not be bought. This is not, of course, the case with most existing state grammar schools, but there are ways of getting there, pre-application support for candidates, tests and interviews designed to draw out potential rather than achievement, balloting, banding, the use of thresholds rather than selecting just the top scores in the entry tests, and rules to keep catchments socially broad and remove hidden barriers to entry. The old direct grant schools used quotas – crude but effective.
The net result of allowing the direct grant schools to return would be that many gifted children from disadvantaged backgrounds would get a better education than they do now. If the great charitable day schools joined in, the remaining independent sector would be confined to the provision of specialist education, where I do not doubt that it would flourish, and state education would gain its proper place in the eyes of academics and recruiters.
These two great prizes justify infringing on the principle of no selection for state education, especially since the trespass is not great. The volume of selection in England will not increase: it will just be better directed.
The Labour Party has not had a chance like this since 1945. The last government’s work in increasing the independence of schools within the state system, the prospect of a long recession and the spirit of the times have combined to provide another. I hope that they take it.
Ralph Lucas is Editor of the Good Schools Guide and a Conservative peer