UK: Unions condemn reintroduction of selective grammar schools

published 16 September 2016 updated 22 September 2016

Teacher unions have reacted strongly to the Government’s proposal to end the ban on the creation of new grammar schools, and are demanding measures intended to prevent poorer children from losing out.

Grammar schools are state secondary schools that select their pupils by means of an examination taken by children at age 11. There are only about 163 grammar schools in England, out of some 3,000 state secondary schools, and a further 69 grammar schools in Northern Ireland. The ban on the creation of new grammar schools has been in place since 1998.

Under the grammar school system, pupils who pass the exam can go to the local grammar school, while those who do not go to the local “secondary modern school”. More common across the UK is the "comprehensive" system, in which pupils of all abilities and aptitudes are taught together.

NUT: Proposal not positive for societal and children’s wellbeing

“This is a backward-looking policy” as “promoting grammar schools as the elite academic option instantly casts all other schools into the role of supporting actor,” the National Union of Teachers (NUT) General Secretary Kevin Courtney said. He was commenting on the publication of Schools That Work for Everyone, the Government’s consultation document on grammar schools.

Teacher retention and recruitment is at dangerously low levels, assessment is in disarray and insufficient school funding is impacting on the quality and range of educational experiences teachers can offer students, he added.

Selection process

Observing that selection benefits middle class families who can and will pay for additional tuition to pass the entrance exams, Courtney added that children with special educational needs and disability will lose out in particular. He added that this proposal will set back decades of work on developing inclusive schools which value and celebrate the achievements of all our children.

In addition, for every child selected to go to a grammar school, three or four are rejected, and this sense of “failure” at such a young age can have a significant impact on children’s self-esteem and worth, Courtney said. He urged the Government to look for “ways to reduce the pressure of the excessive exam factory culture, not adding to it”.

Social mobility

Social mobility will not be addressed by selective education, he said, mentioning a Sutton Trust report showing that less than three per cent of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, while many grammar school heads were concerned that children from middle class families were coached to pass the entrance exam.

Highlighting that “grammar schools are nothing more than window dressing”, he called on the Government to step back, take a long hard look at what is needed to ensure that all children are given the education they deserve, and adopt an approach that instead invests the Stg£50 million earmarked for grammar schools in teachers and in providing a high quality education and a good local school for every child.

NASUWT: ‘a distraction’ from solving the crises in education

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) has also taken issue with the proposal to allow the creation of new grammar schools.

“The Government’s proposals to remove barriers to selection of pupils on the basis of ability, aptitude and religion are a distraction from the real challenges and crises in our education system,” said NASUWT Deputy General Secretary Patrick Roach. “A crisis of not enough teachers, not enough school places and not enough money, as a consequence of years of public sector cuts and austerity.”

The proposals on selection are about extending privilege to a few, rather than tackling the problems of inequality and social exclusion which are blighting the lives of children and young people across the country, he told the Trades Union Congress’s Congress on 14 September.

Litany of challenges

These proposals are a distraction from the Government’s failure to end the phenomenon of insecure employment and low pay, discrimination, prejudice and hate on the streets, homelessness, the lack of affordable housing and the lack of investment in high quality training, skills and decent jobs, he underlined.

It is time for government to commit to the vision and values of comprehensive education that secures equality of opportunity and entitlement for all children and which is the basis for securing society’s shared values, inclusion and mutual respect and understanding, he said. “We must demand a better deal for all our children.”

Educational inequalities

NASUWT General Secretary Chris Keates said the Prime Minister should focus on tackling the deep educational inequalities which are the legacy of her predecessor.

The education policies of the previous Coalition Government, continued by this one, have rapidly increased covert selection, often targeted at pupils from materially deprived backgrounds, she said. “It is now a reality that access to education for some children and young people is based on their parents’ ability to pay.”

Keates highlighted that over three million children in the UK live in poverty, a key inhibitor to educational progress, and experience daily the harsh realities of cuts to welfare, specialist services and support, education grants and the wider effects of the recession.

“The values and ethos of a public education service, which should secure and deliver the entitlement of all children and young people to access high quality education, have been seriously compromised,” she said.