By Ben Verinder, Managing Director of Chalkstream Ltd.
When it comes to education, the political is personal. At a minimum, our experiences as pupil, student or parent shape and solidify opinions about how education should be planned, managed and delivered. Nowhere, it seems, is the political more personal than when talking about grammars – newly topical as the Government seeks to change the law to allow for the establishment of new institutions. Anecdote fuels the commentariat. The ‘I went to one but…’ group versus the ‘I went to one and…’
Theresa May’s defence of the policy, echoing earlier headlines about her personal crusade to give every child the opportunities she enjoyed as a grammar school pupil, inevitably descended into reminiscence. She gently reminded Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn ‘that he went to a grammar school’. ‘As did I’, the PM expanded, and ‘it’s what got us here today.’ Given how painful her experience defending the policy looked, that wasn’t much of a recommendation.
Reference to personal experience might pique our human interest but it’s generally a sign of a weak argument. Indeed, the evidence is so overwhelmingly against the policy that it is rapidly looking like a self-inflicted wound. From Chris Cook and Laura McInerney’s pithy explanations about how poor children are disadvantaged in selective areas, to the OECD’s observation that grammars are unlikely to improve overall standards, the week has been dominated by the disadvantages of this proposal.
Analysts can afford to be confident because we are working with what might loosely be termed ‘experimental’ data from places like Kent and Buckinghamshire. This isn’t hypothetical extrapolation. These are real lives, real life chances. Which begs questions about all the people who haven’t made it to grammar in those counties since alternative systems were available.
In a post on the Conservative Home site Teach First’s Sam Freedman summarises that ‘selection offers a gamble where the odds are on losing.’ What Freedman and a host of what might be called progressive educationalists from across the political spectrum are arguing is that a chance of something isn’t good enough. It is woeful if we abandon the ambition that – to reanimate a New Labour phrase – every child matters.
In some ways the argument about evidence is of the least interest. Perhaps this is because it points so emphatically in a particular direction. Or, if we are indeed living in a post-factual era, where political polarisation allows doctrine to trump the truth (if you’ll excuse the pun) then it is irrelevant despite its strength.
Perhaps a more interesting question is: why don’t other types of discriminatory selection attract this type of attention? Of grammars Freedman states: “By being able to choose their own customers, they inevitably make all the alternatives less attractive.” He could well be writing about post-16 education. There is no shortage of evidence about a sub-section of schools choosing ‘their own customers’ by providing shoddy advice and guidance so as to cling on to students at the expense of their interest in an apprenticeship, sixth form college, a UTC. Our own research among non-enrolled applicants of colleges over the past few years has revealed some fairly appalling examples of pressure and persuasion applied by particular schools against the interest of the individual.
The grammar debate sees proponents advocate for the policy on the basis that expansion means increased parental and student choice. This is generally a fallacy. Where new sixth forms appear, for instance, curricula often shrinks because institutions are no longer able to subsidise courses that don’t recruit strongly. It’s a zero sum game.
Is the politics of most interest here? Much has been made of No 10 advisor Nick Timothy’s support for grammars, but one wonders to what extent the policy is intended as a sop to the influential 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs, in advance of a softer-than-they-might-want Brexit? The committee Chair, Graham Brady, quit the shadow cabinet in 2007 at David Cameron’s refusal to back grammars.
The policy might play well along some of the back benches, but as Freedman points out is not particularly popular with the public. This matters because it means the chances of it surviving Parliament are relatively slim, given the Government’s small majority.
Which means that the most important element about the policy might be everything it is not. That it is, as Professor Mel Ainscow describes, a dangerous distraction when executive or legislative attention might be far better focused on embedding curriculum reform or addressing what appears to be a chronic and worsening teacher shortage.
That legislative agenda is important in terms of broader publics, even if a green or white paper doesn’t ultimately become statute. It drives public debate and interest. It shapes the national conversation, brought into sharper focus by the media’s lens. The political, conversely, becomes the personal.
Ben Verinder is managing director of Chalkstream, an agency specialising in reputation research and management, communication training and strategic planning in the education sector. Current and former clients include NATO, City & Guilds Group, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, ZSL and a wide range of universities, colleges and school groups. Ben is a Founding Chartered Practitioner and chartered status assessor.