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Labour should phase out grammar schools in this parliament

In 2018, I wrote a chapter on selective schools for a fascinating book about education system design. In it, I made two recommendations:

  1. End state subsidies to privateschools, including the introduction of a tax on fees
  2. Phase out grammar schools

I am pleased to say that we are well on the way to achieving the first. However, without the second I am concerned it will be an unfinished revolution.

To re-state the facts: seven per cent of children currently attend a private school and three per cent attend a grammar school.

If the IFS (Institute for Fiscal Studies) is right, the introduction of VAT on school fees is likely to result in between five to seven per cent of pupils moving from private to state schools, yielding a net boost to the treasury of up to £1.5 billion. A clear majority of the public support the policy, so all is good.

Pupil numbers are set to fall over the next decade, so it should not be difficult for state schools to absorb the extra numbers. Indeed, it could even help them protect their budgets.

But how will the changes affect those areas of the country (like Kent, Lincolnshire and Buckinghamshire) that still have grammar schools?

Grammar schools tend to serve the most advantaged in society; only 6.7 per cent of their pupils are eligible for free school meals compared to 28.4 per cent in nearby non-selective schools. Unsurprisingly, only 4.3 per cent of grammar school pupils have a special educational need or disability.

I suspect that in those local authorities where grammar schools remain, the introduction of VAT on private school fees will result in greater pressure for places in some of those grammar schools. This has been hyped up in much of the right-wing press – but also challenged by the Grammar School Heads Association.

The result could be private education by the back door

It’s worth noting that many grammar school pupils live outside of what would be their school’s catchment. In fact, 29 grammar schools admit more than 50 per cent of their pupils from further afield. The new tax could increase this trend.

The result could be private education by the back door.

Entry to grammar schools is already largely the preserve of those who can afford to pay for private tuition to pass the 11+. That market is only going to grow with the new tax, which will leave even fewer places for other young people.

In other words, those who can afford it will go to a grammar school as a form of private education by proxy.

The answer is clear.

The comprehensive revolution begun by Labour in 1965 should now be completed. The new government should phase the remaining grammars into comprehensives over the five years of this parliament.

It would be a straightforward process, one most areas concluded decades ago. Most of the country would not even notice and it would cost next to nothing. Some parents in the areas where grammar schools still exist would object, but most parents nationally would not.

A few might argue that grammar schools are good for social mobility. On the contrary, research has found that children growing up in areas that have grammar schools face much higher earnings inequality later in life than those growing up in areas without them.

Stephen Gorard, professor of education at the University of Durham, says “there is repeated evidence that any appearance of advantage for those attending selective schools is outweighed by the disadvantage for those who do not”. That’s why Theresa May’s proposals to create new grammar schools never saw the light of day.

If we are really to tackle the disadvantage gap and raise education standards across the whole country, we cannot continue to allow this anomaly in our education system.

Selection in education entrenches privilege and disadvantage. Like whooping cough and rickets, such schools belong to a different age.

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