They’re toxic: the education equivalent of bankers bonuses, multinational corporations and fox hunting. All rolled in one. Their (initially) furtively heralded and little looked for return has generated enormous heat, and seemingly very little light; seemingly that is, until you view them through a wider-angled prism of free market Conservatism. Despite appearances to the contrary, it is this laissez-faire philosophy, and not grammar schools themselves, that are drastically reshaping the British education system and will continue to do so over the course of the next decade. Grammar schools represent the next step in a process of rapid and significant change, rather than being the end in themselves.
That Data analysis by Education Datalab demonstrates that grammar schools often apply flawed selection methodologies that exclude the poorest pupils, and that their presence has a statistically significant negative effect on pupils who are denied entry will likely not influence the policy, especially if the Conservatives win a thumping majority in the upcoming General Election.
Throw academies, academy chains and free schools into the mixing bowl and the basic ingredients for a market in state school education is already in place.
The spark that may breathe life into this mixture has it’s origins that can be traced back to the Conservative Party manifesto of 2005. The government of Michael Howard that never was were determined to increase choice, to allow the good academy chains to take over their weaker peers and to specialise in different areas of the curriculum. Crucially, the system would be underpinned by the £5,000 ‘virtual voucher’ which could be spent at any school of a parent’s choosing, including independent schools. This approach, derived from the ideas of Professor James Tooley at Newcastle University, appealed to the Conservative’s instinctive sense that the market could be used to drive up standards; all parents would be spending real money to choose the right school for their children - consumers would be deciding what schools were built and thrived, not central government or local authorities.
The previous Secretary of State for Education may have labelled the grammar schools proposals ‘weird’ - and so they seem in isolation. But they are the Trojan Horse; what will make them palatable to doubting Tory backbench MPs is the inevitable marketisation that will go alongside them. Grammar schools then are the flanking manoeuvre; a skirmish amongst the pickets. The real battle for the future of British education lies beyond, but it is coming.
The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/nicky-morgan-theresa-may-former-education-secretary-grammar-schools-weird-a7235731.html
James Tooley: http://www.ncl.ac.uk/ecls/staff/profile/james.tooley#tab_profile
Conservative 2005 manifesto: