As a headteacher, I fear the return of grammars will bring back sink schools too

If Labour can't stop a policy as unfair and regressive as selective education, what is it for?

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I began my teaching career in the mid-nineties at an inner London school. Just before I began, only five per cent of students achieved five A-C grades. That was one of the lowest in London, but it wasn’t all that unusual. In 1996 at White Hart Lane School in Haringey, only six out of 158 Year 11 pupils got five A-Cs, and a staggering 65 per cent didn't even manage to achieve five A-Gs.

These may seem dull statistics, but think just how bad things have to be in a school for two-thirds of the students not even to get a G grade at GCSE. There were another four comprehensives in Haringey that year where 20 per cent or fewer of the students achieved five A-Cs.

Those schools were sink schools. You didn't send your kids there if you wanted them to get a good education. The school I first worked at always had vacancies - any middle-class parent whose child had been sent there got them out as quick as they could, while all through the year we had to integrate a stream of problematic new arrivals from across the borough border ("encouraged" to leave by their previous headteachers), as well as any children who’d just arrived in the UK. 

There were some wonderful, very talented kids and some fantastic and very committed teachers, but it was hard to recruit staff, and many were temporary supply teachers, which added to the behaviour problems. I remember a local taxi driver seeing a new building going up at the front of the school. He asked what it was. I told him "it's a City Learning Centre". "What?", he sneered incredulously, "For these animals?!". 

Schools like that stack the odds against you. Staff were constantly exhausted, and instead of having high aspirations and creating a good learning environment for pupils, the school leadership was in perpetual crisis management mode, going through four headteachers in four years. Most depressing of all, the students knew it - as I experienced at other schools in similar circumstances, if you asked pupils what they thought of their school they would tell you "it’s a shit school". They’d say it with a kind of bravado, but no child wants to go to a shit school. It's my own experience of seeing children in circumstances like those, and my conviction that reintroducing selection at 11 will bring them back, that makes me determined to speak out against this policy.

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To understand why many of us in the profession see reintroducing selection at 11 as a disaster, you need to understand what it is that's being jeopardised, and you probably won't know that if you haven't got direct experience of our inner city schools in the last ten years. Twenty years on from when I started teaching, schools like the one I began at don't exist any more, probably anywhere in the country, but certainly not in London.

You could debate whether this change is mostly due to league tables and other accountability measures such as floor targets, or Ofsted, or the introduction of Academies, or the London Challenge, or improved school leadership and initiatives like Future Leaders, Teach First, or the National Professional Qualification for Headship. A significant factor is the major boost in funding that Labour injected, and it looks like that funding is now about to be cut back severely. But what’s even worse is that the ambition to make schools better for every child now looks to be disappearing with it.

It is now normal for students in the poorest areas of London to go to schools where two-thirds of the students achieve five A-Cs, including English and Maths. Many of these schools have transformed over the last two decades, and school leaders are building further on that, with increasing focus on getting our young people to achieve the very top grades and go on to Russell Group universities.  And it’s now abnormal to go into a London school and find that there is not a culture of academic aspiration. Remember that in 1996 there were five comprehensives in Haringey where a fifth or fewer of students got 5 A-Cs? Jump forward to 2016 and there was not a single mainstream state school in Haringey, Hackney or Islington where less than 40 per cent of pupils got five A-Cs (and the 2016 figure has to include English and Maths, so is a higher bar).

This progress has been a very hard slog, in the face of sometimes capricious policy changes, and there are still major flaws in our system. But in our inner city schools today young people not only get better results - they are safer and feel more supported, and have a wider range of opportunities, as well as getting better qualifications. At the school where I now work around a fifth of students achieved five grade Cs and above in 1997, whereas now it is very close to two-thirds. The students are from one of the most deprived areas in London, there are over 60 different home languages spoken, and it’s an area with major gang problems. Yet when people visit the school for the first time, the most frequent first comment is how calm it feels. We are ambitious for all our students, including the higher achievers - several students each year get 8 or more A* grades at GCSE, and many of our students go on to local academic sixth forms where there are an increasing number of success stories going on to medical school and Oxbridge.

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But let’s look ahead one or two years. If a selective school opens in our catchment area, it will draw in the highest-achieving students from primary school. Our own message that all our students can achieve will instantly be tempered by the idea that our students are not "the selected ones".  We will over the next few years become a secondary modern. We will continue to work hard for all students, but with fewer of the more able students, it will become steadily harder to ensure that those who are with us get a really good experience. We will instead receive a greater and greater share of the pupils who the new grammar schools don’t want to take. We will find it harder to attract and retain the staff with the best academic qualifications (already a problem when you don’t have a sixth form as many of the brightest teachers always want to teach some top set and some A-level).

We are now seen by the local community as a good enough school that we won’t be the first to go to the wall, but the Free School programme has already created overcapacity in our borough. If one of the schools made vulnerable by that oversupply has to close, it will of course not be the new grammar school that has to suddenly take in a new wave of students, and cope with all the associated challenges. Meanwhile we will have to make cuts as our funding drops, leading to higher teacher workload, and less support for our students with Special Needs, while we see the new schools facing no such problems. Instead of working for further improvements to our students’ education, we will be counting ourselves fortunate if we aren’t going backwards.

I can’t quite believe it’s going to happen. It is policymaking by anecdote, with cheerleading from columnists such as Allison Pearson, whose outdated negative stereotypes of state education appear to be based on having disliked the comp she went to in the 1970s. It is against the overwhelming evidence from international studies. It is a senseless distraction from the opportunity to consolidate and stabilise improvements in the school system after years and years of reform. It disregards the views of the Education Select Committee and of the Education Policy Institute and of the vast majority of headteachers (you know, the ones that the government likes to claim it is empowering). It is a massive expense at a time when schools are already facing major cuts in per pupil funding. It is the antithesis of social mobility or if not, it is the kind of social mobility that is about letting a few into the elite, not about improving the chances of the many. People who claim to be in favour of high educational standards and giving working class pupils a chance are enacting a policy which will pull the rug out from under two decades of progress in the schools which have been working incredibly hard to do just that.

And yet they will do it. Is it just party management - a tactic to appease the right-wing MPs who may be disappointed by the next stages of the Brexit negotiations? Or is it a form of sub-Trumpian populism, the kind of politics in which you energise your base by doing whatever will most annoy their opponents? What is it about the idea of grammar schools that is so seductive to Number 10 that it will risk sidetracking, and probably derailing, all its educational priorities up to now?

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New Labour achieved a great deal in education but its failings are at the root of this crisis in two ways. One is the peculiar strategy of never really taking the credit for an educational policy which did actually transform the opportunities for many of their core supporters. The second major failing is that the top-down approach to policy of Andrew Adonis in particular paved the way for Michael Gove’s own whimsically egotistical dirigisme, and now we have an extraordinarily centralised education system. Academy chains such as Harris are the new big players. Even though many of their senior leaders know this is a fundamentally misconceived policy,  their own success is so dependent on the decisions of ministers, that they will nevertheless agree to open new selective schools.

I will stick at my job, and will try to ensure that, if and when it comes, the announcement which turns my school into a secondary modern does not undermine all we have achieved so far. My fellow professionals are, I fear, so worn down by staying on top of the relentless stream of curriculum and assessment reforms, and by the obvious disinterest of government in listening to the profession, that there may not be a huge pushback against this. The election of the relatively outspoken Geoff Barton as Secretary General of the main secondary headteachers’ union, ASCL, may help mobilise school leaders, but he is not even officially in post yet. Perhaps this is one issue where the second chamber can fulfil its proper constitutional role, and reject a reform that is poorly thought through, and was not in the governing party's election manifesto.

Singapore and Finland’s huge successes in education stemmed from carefully worked through reforms, implemented gradually over many years, and consistently working to build a consensus and listen to professionals. In the UK we shall be implementing a momentous radical reform in a hurry, against the evidence and the views of the profession, and for partisan political reasons, and which will achieve the precise opposite of what it is intended to.

Is it so hard to make the case that we need a system which works for all our students, rather than writing the majority off as academic second-raters at the age of 11? Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner gave it her best shot on the Today programme on 7 March but it will take a lot more than that to see off the government’s flagship non-Brexit policy. It will need a broad coalition, and in particular full commitment from the leadership of both Labour and the Lib Dems to have a chance of stopping it.

But if Labour can’t fight hard against a policy like this which is so fundamentally against the interests of its supporters, and on an issue where there is a strong non-partisan opposition to it, then what is the Labour party for?

Jackie Stevens is the pseudonym for a headteacher in a comprehensive school in inner London 

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