Whatever your views on grammars, today’s announcement is a slap in the face to most schools

Reading time: 3 minutes. Relevant publication: Triumph in adversity – how financial constraints are driving schools to do things differently.

Tom Middlehurst, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, SSAT writes

Today, Damian Hinds has announced ‘a raft’ of new policies, ahead of the long-awaited publication of the response to the 2016 Schools that work for everyone green paper consultation. The highest profile of these policies is the decision to allow existing grammar schools to expand through a new £50m fund, including the potential to open ‘satellite’ sites – if certain criteria are met. The headline policies announced are:

  • a new wave of free school applications;
  • £50 million funding to expand the number of places at existing good or outstanding selective schools alongside measures to give more disadvantaged pupils the opportunity to attend these schools;
  • new support for faith schools where there is demand for good school places; and
  • fresh agreement with the independent schools sector to help improve outcomes for pupils of all backgrounds.

At the time of the consultation, SSAT acknowledged the good work done by grammar schools in England, many of whom are members of the network, but supported the calls of the Fair Education Alliance to resist expanding selection further.

In reality, today’s announcement will mean very little for the system: some grammars will expand their buildings and therefore capacity slightly, very few may open satellite sites in nearby towns or areas, free schools will continue to build mostly in areas of highest need. But really, this whole process undermines so much of what Hinds and other ministers have been advocating for so long – and will feel a slap in the face to many schools.

Expanding grammars

Evidence from independent think tanks such as the Fair Education Alliance and Education Policy Institute has shown that, on average (and there are exceptions) grammar schools admit a disproportionally low percentage of disadvantaged students, and do not achieve the government’s own social mobility aims. Therefore, it is welcome that in today’s announcement, grammars will have to prove that they are taking steps to widen access for disadvantaged students in order to bid for funding. However, the fact remains that cultural and wealth factors are always built into a selective system. There is no such thing as a non-coachable 11+ test – and there likely never will be – so wealthy families will always be able to pay for additional tutoring.

Furthermore, SSAT believes that all students – in any type of school – deserve a strong, powerful, knowledge-rich curriculum, with opportunities for practical application built in. Fetishisation of the selective system assumes that only some students deserve a classical liberal education; when schools such as the West London Free School, Bedford Free School and the Inspiration Trust are showing how a traditional grammar school curriculum can be delivered to all learners. There seems an inherent paradox in expanding selective education and minister Gibb’s own priority with a knowledge-rich curriculum.

The faith cap

The news that new free schools will continue to have a 50% cap on faith admissions was surprising, giving Hinds’ earlier comments on the cap, and will come as a major blow to the Catholic Education Service (CES) as Canon Law prevents a RC school from refusing to admit practising Catholics.

The compromise to open new voluntary aided schools is an interesting one. In practical terms, VA schools mean that that the CES and other faith schools can open new faith schools and set their own admissions criteria – up to 100% admissions – providing they are willing to contribute 10% of the capital funding. However, VA schools do not have academy status – so while the land and buildings are generally owned by the religious foundation, and staff are employed directly by the governors, they have to follow national pay and conditions and have to teach the national curriculum. As a type of maintained school, VA schools cannot formally join a multi-academy trust.

So while the CES may consider the VA option, it will be far from ideal for them.

A slap in the face

£50m is not a lot of money in education. But the fact that ministers have decided to focus on the 163 grammar schools in England, at a time when many schools are crying out for funds, is genuinely insulting to the sector.

We are not against grammars getting more money per se; but not when every other type of school is being forced to reduce their budgets. It’s frankly wrong – and shows exactly where ministerial thinking lies at the moment.

Moreover, the way in which the response was published – already months overdue – then deliberately not published until after newspapers, including our media partner Schools Week, have gone to press is deeply cynical. There is no acknowledgement of the vast responses to the consultation which were anti-selection in the formal response (this comes in the appendix, authored by Ipos Mori, separately).

For a secretary of state who claims to want to listen to the profession, he has failed to do so. For a department who want their schools to be increasingly evidence-based, we have a lack of evidence-based policy thinking. For ministers who value a knowledge-rich curriculum for all, we have an unavoidable dichotomy. Above all, although £50m may not be a huge amount in the grand scheme of things, all schools deserve a cut of this (and more besides), not just a chosen few.

SSAT members can receive the latest policy and public affairs comment from SSAT on the email group listservs. Request access by getting in touch with your relationship manager by email.

Read on the SSAT blog: Facing the funding challenge

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