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9 September 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 9:07am

Here’s how Theresa May can win the argument on grammar schools

Expanding these schools could be a fantastic policy, if it is targeted to benefit the poorest.

By Sean Worth

In an urgent question in the Commons yesterday, Labour’s Angela Rayner railed furiously at the Education Secretary, Justine Greening, for planning to expand grammar schools.

The fact that no such plans had been announced made for a pantomime row in reality, but Rayner landed blows in what has become a heated debate about whether grammar schools boost a child’s life chances or entrench their disadvantage.

Surely then, if the Prime Minister wants the Tories to gain credit for advancing the life chances of all children, as she has said, she would not choose such a controversial platform on which to do it? Well, yes it seems she might indeed do so.

To save time going through the evidence on whether current grammars improve social mobility or not, I will cut short to say at a basic level of analysis it’s a no – not for poorer children anyway. But the argument does not follow that future grammar expansions would also fail on that front. New policy rarely simply mimics the past. It evolves, tackling system problems, and this is what we should expect from future reforms. The key question is how can grammars can deliver the social mobility we all so badly want to see?

The fact is that grammars are generally extremely good and the evidence is they give state school children a better start in life – just not the poorer ones. So, the problem is actually a focused one, the prime candidate being the selection process for entry.

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Theresa May appears, from recent comments, to be annoyed at how richer parents can game for their own advantage an education system that should, as a universal public service, give all children fair access to good schooling. The argument against grammars is they epitomise this, underrepresenting poor children because those from better-off parents receive more help and coaching to pass the selective entry exams.

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No-one blames the parents in this. I will do what I can to help my three children get a better schooling than the mediocre comprehensive one I had, as will many others, and no government can or should curtail that natural motive.

This, as well as evidence on what actually works, is why expanding grammars (and other measures to target social mobility) must not be focused on general populations but targeted explicitly for the benefit of the poorest families.

Our entire schools system has historically failed those from poorer backgrounds and the latest evidence on interventions that work to redress that – from the pupil premium to paying good teachers more to work in disadvantaged areas – is that our approach to reform should be to focus extra help within a universal system on poorer pupils explicitly.

As well as targeting expansion in those areas that most need better schools, selection for entry has to be modernised: multiple opportunities at different ages for access, initial use of higher quotas of children on free school meals and ability tests designed to eliminate class, gender and ethnicity biases, which are already in use in some education and vocational settings, can be developed for routine grammar school entrance.

Equally important, however, is what will win the political argument to expand grammars and again, making this an explicit pro-working class objective is absolutely vital. Allowing a general lift of the ban on grammars, as many on the right want, not only rubs against the evidence on what works, it gifts to what is currently a disunited Labour Opposition a campaign to unite around – why would the Tories do that?

The lesson on this comes actually from the Labour Party itself. It was Labour that first introduced and expanded rapidly the private sector in the NHS, as Tony Blair knew its targeted use would bring faster progress on his improvement targets. The move would create huge opposition in the union-controlled health establishment, but he focused the policy explicitly on bringing down waiting times in the poorest areas. The unions of course attacked him, but had been positioned on the wrong side of the argument before it even began. That is exactly what Theresa May needs to do to win the political argument for expanding grammar schools.

In the end, expanding these schools could be a fantastic policy, if targeted to benefit the poorest but also within an iron determination not to take the foot off the gas on action to help all schools of all kinds perform better. Free schools, academies, continuing curriculum reform – the entire policy toolbox must be thrown at improving our schools. Grammars are just a small part of the tapestry of choice and empowerment the poorest families deserve from our public services.

Sean Worth is the Director of the Westminster Policy Institue.