As the government toys with the idea of reintroducing grammar schools, the Yorkshire Party's Cllr Wayne Chadburn examines the case for a Yorkshire Education Challenge.
If we are to believe the latest mutterings to come out of Downing Street, we could see the return of grammar schools across Yorkshire in the next few years. This will please those that hark back to the ‘good old days’. However, will it, as those that champion grammar schools say, transform the life chances of children in Yorkshire? Let us not forget that Yorkshire schools are at the bottom of the regional performance tables for all regions in England and we desperately need this to improve if the economic future of this great county is to be secured.
Those arguing for grammar schools say that they are engines of social mobility and out-perform comprehensive schools. As with much government policy however, these views, which look to be informing government policy, have a weak bedrock of evidence and research behind them. They owe more to do with anecdotal emotions and knee-jerk reactions.
There are some regions in England where grammar schools still exist and so comparisons can be made with comprehensive schools. One statistic used to define the group of children from which to measure social mobility is free school meals – the same measure used to apportion the pupil premium. Grammar schools in existence have only 3% of their student population in receipt of free school meals as opposed to 18% in the average comprehensive school. Four times as many grammar school pupils have come from the independent sector as the state sector. Far from being the engine for social mobility that those who yearn for their re-introduction claim, grammar schools actually act as a cheap alternative to private education. It is a form of education which benefits the more affluent sectors of society rather than the less affluent. Factor in as well that the more affluent also have the means to ‘buy in’ private tuition to pass the entrance examinations to grammar schools and you can see that far from engineering social mobility, grammar school actually entrench the educational inequalities that already exist in this country.
As for exam performance, in all but the most affluent areas, normal state comprehensive schools, on average, actually outperform grammar schools on GCSE results. One startling statistic however is that London state comprehensives outperform (considerably in many cases) not only comprehensives across the country but grammar schools also irrespective of background. Fifteen years ago London schools were in a similar position to Yorkshire schools – bottom of the performance league tables. They were the basket case of educational achievement in the UK. Now they top all the performance tables in the country. What was the agent for this transformation? Was it the introduction of the1950’s style grammar school/secondary modern model that Graham Brady, David Davis and Theresa May apparently crave? No it was the London Challenge, a region wide collaborative approach to improving performance. The thing is, it worked and the evidence is there to see.
What would a Yorkshire Challenge look like? Let us look at the key aspects of the London Challenge – this is the model we would work from because this is the model that worked in London. Our objective would be that Yorkshire schools would be the best in the country and all our schools were judged at least good by OfSTED. Using forensic use of school data families of schools with common characteristics would be created. This ensures that schools cannot use the defence of being different to other schools as a reason for poor performance. It is also a key reason why a challenge based on single authorities cannot work as well because they do not have the economy of scale required. London has over 400 secondary schools and they were able to create 20 ‘families’ of about 20 schools which married together schools with similar characteristics but with some schools clearly outperforming others. Then through collaboration, mentoring and critical partnership and the input of senior educationalists – people with a proven track record of educational achievement and turning around schools in difficult situations – these families work together at overcoming the barriers to success. It worked for London – it can work for Yorkshire.
The answer to improving educational outcomes in Yorkshire is not to go back to a 1950’s approach which worked for a few but not the many and which labels children at 10 and 11 years old, but to replicate London’s model in Yorkshire with our own Yorkshire Challenge with a ruthless drive to improve teaching and learning and hence the life chances of our young people. Our future economic prosperity depends on the educational outcomes of our young people. They only get one chance at this and we need to use tried and tested methods, not knee-jerk reactions born of halcyon views of a bygone age.
Note: Published in the Yorkshire Post - 'Educate Yourself on Grammar School Claims' on Wednesday 10th August 2016.