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Lucy's speech in today's Grammar Schools debate

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Grammar Schools debate

Intro – pleased to speak, first opportunity since resigning as Shadow Education etc.  While I led opposition almost a year ago to government plans to open the so-called new annexe of a grammar school in Kent, I can’t quite believe that in 2016 Britain we are seriously contemplating a return to selection at 11 given all the progress we have made in education over the last 20 years.


Before I get the meat of this debate and why I believe grammar schools will take the agenda which the PM and SoS say they support – opportunity for everyone – backwards, I want to say something about the how we need to talk about the issue of “social mobility”

Too often social mobility is thought of in terms of plucking the one or two lucky ones out of disadvantage and taking them to the top – the so-called “council house to cabinet table” journey.  This understanding is actually really unhelpful when looking at the deep-seated challenges our country and education system faces and the complex policy solutions required to overcome them.

Social mobility is and should be about people, starting as children, being able to make economic and social progress, unconfined by disadvantages they begin with, achieving to their full potential.

The barriers to this in Britain are many-fold.  In education, the long-tail of underachievement and the educational attainment gap between the disadvantaged and their peers, which is now widening not narrowing, should be the focus of public policy, as it has been for last two decades.  A concerted strategy for narrowing the skills gap and the productivity gap would boost social mobility for the many.  And breaking down the social barriers in accessing opportunities in work and in life is also key. 

None of these fundamental and deep-rooted problems are addressed by a policy which focuses entirely on the already high-attainers and, as we will debate more today, the already advantaged getting a more elite education. 

The Prime Minister says she wants opportunities for everyone and says she wants, “every child to be able to get on as far as their talents and hard work will take them”.  These are aims with which I would agree and I’m sure most of us in the House would agree.  However, her means are all wrong.  Not only would the reintroduction of grammar schools set this agenda backwards and be what the Chief Inspector of Schools describes as “retrograde”, but also the policies and interventions that we know DO work are also going backwards under this government.

Let’s look at both.


The problem with grammars

Firstly, on academic selection and the reintroduction of grammar schools, let’s look at the evidence which is clear.


Internationally, countries which make greater gains for children in the bottom half of the income distribution are comprehensive not selective system. That’s why, the OECD has concluded that “Countries with selective education systems, on average, perform less well than countries with more comprehensive education systems”.


Within England, the highest-performing boroughs are comprehensive. London, for example, outperforms both selective areas and the national average when it comes to both its top and bottom results at GCSE. In contrast, the attainment gap is worse than the national average in 8 out of 9 fully selective areas.


In Kent and Medway, poorer children lag behind, whilst richer children move ahead and the losses at the bottom are much larger than the gains at the top. This pattern is a feature of the selective areas in England, as a whole.


Let’s compare fully selective Kent to comprehensive London. Free School Meal eligible pupils in Kent achieve just 27 per cent achieve 5 good GCSEs, while the national figure is 33 per cent and 45 per cent in London.


So, I have to ask the government, again, why not focus on sharing the good practice of London rather than spreading the poorer outcomes of Kent?


Furthermore, disadvantaged children in selective areas do worse for the rest of their lives


The practice of coaching children to pass the 11+ in selective areas is rife. That’s why the proportion of disadvantaged children at grammar schools is extremely low, just 2.6% of kids on Free School Meals. Overall grammars admit 4 to 5 times as many children who went to independent/prep schools than are eligible for free school meals. That’s why Lord David Willets has described grammar schools, as “an arms race of private tuition for rich parents”.

Any parent would understand why this is the case.  Of course most parents would want their child to go to a school full of clever children where their social networks would be developed, where it’s easier to recruit and retain teachers, and where success helps breed further success.  However, the majority wouldn’t get in.

But to suggest this doesn’t disrupt the wider education system and outcomes for everyone else – the 80 % who don’t get in – is plain wrong.

That’s why we see today school leader’s in Conservative Surrey saying they are “vehemently” opposed to grammar schools, echoing many concerns raised by others of the impact of creaming off the brightest and the best, and stigmatising the rest.

We as policy-makers, should be leading the debate.  Shouting from the roof-tops about how great many more of today’s schools are, and that in the top performing comprehensives, which take in many thousands more poorer children, are just as good, if not better than the best grammars.  Yet, they provide opportunity, stretch and good outcomes for ALL children not just a few.  And as I said in my opening, it’s the social networks and community cohesion available to everyone that’s particularly important in today’s world which comprehensives offer.

I’m really proud that I went to a local comprehensive school in Manchester.  In fact the same one attended by my honourable Friend, the Member for Wigan, who has already spoken eloquently today.

Be under no illusion, though, that in the era when we both attended that school, Parrs Wood High School, too many children were failed.  We had some great teachers, but education was poorly resourced and too may were allowed to slip through the net.

I’m very proud that our eldest child now attends the same school.  It’s a truly comprehensive school with over 40% of kids on Free School Meals and achieved its best ever results this year, with 72% of children gaining 5 A-C’s including English and Maths.  Like many of the best comprehensives, it has a strong Gifted & Talented programme (pretty much dropped by this government) and fluid streaming and setting in some subjects.  This is what the best schools do – stretching all kids as they develop and creating a school-wide ethos of success and achievement.

Even though, education wasn’t so great in my day, it matters hugely to my peers, and to kids from all backgrounds today that they can socially and academically mix, raising aspirations and attainment for everyone. For the dozens of Manchester schools kids that I meet every week they can see that I went to a local comprehensive just like them and they can see there’s no barrier to what they can achieve.  What a damming verdict on our country if we went back to an era where we told 4 in every 5 children at the age of 11 there was a cap on their potential and it was only the grammar school kids who could get far.

Across Manchester today, I could give many examples of Outstanding Secondary schools delivering real progress for huge numbers of disadvantaged kids a like Wright Robinson College, Trinity High School, Manchester Enterprise Academy & Whalley Range High School – the list could go on.

That’s why the Education Policy Institute found that the overall improvements we’ve seen in education over the last twenty years, including the sponsored academies programme, has had a much more significant impact on attainment of disadvantaged children than expanding grammar schools could have.


Government’s arguments

So why is the government proposing bringing back grammar’s?  One can only assume this is because of ideology not sound policy.

In pursuit of this ideology, Ministers have scrabbled together a pretty flimsy “Green Paper” and cherry picked a few bits of selective (sorry for the pun) evidence.

Firstly, they cling to research which shows that the tiny, tiny number of children on Free School Meals who get into grammar schools do better than those that don’t.  What a deeply dubious argument.  Not only is this a tiny number not comparable with the huge numbers not at grammars, but by definition those tiny few are already high-attainers at KS2.  If you look at the top attainers at KS2 from all backgrounds they do just as well at the best comprehensives as they do at grammar schools.  What’s more, those who aren’t high-achievers at 11 do better in comprehensive systems.

The government also argue that by changing the nature of the selection and somehow making getting into grammar school’s tutor proof will solve these problems.  I beg to differ.  But in any case, why not enforce these requirements on today’s grammar school’s first to prove the point if they are confident of their argument?


Finally, the Prime Minister’s final straw in justifying this policy is that “it is wrong that we have a law that prevents the opening or expansion of good schools.”  She seem to see no irony whatsoever that her government has banned the opening of good schools by anyone else other than a Free School, leading to a school’s place crisis and a system in chaos.


How to actually tackle “social mobility”

I almost find it depressing that we are having to re-rehearse these arguments when the overwhelming evidence is clear.

What’s also become much clearer is the evidence base for the policies and interventions that DO work and tackle the educational attainment gap.

Quality in the Early years

A deep-pool of excellent teachers

Adequate resources targeted at closing the gap and giving opportunity for all

Just briefly to finish, let’s look at what’s happening in each of these areas under this government.

In the early years, yes, we’ve seen more resources going in as the importance of affordable childcare gains political imperative and economic necessity.  But while I welcome the focus on enabling more parents to work, the critical issue of quality early education in narrowing the gap has taken a backward step.  We know that by the age of 5 the developmental gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is already very clear – equivalent to 15 months.  Yet what we are seeing today is the opposite of what needs to happen in order to close the gap.

Remarkably in the many parts of country, after years of focus by the previous Labour government and many councils, we have some of the highest quality early years provision in some of the most deprived communities, through Maintained Nursery Schools and free school nursery places.  Yet, in an attempt to deliver its pledged 30 hours free childcare for working parents (more likely to be better off), the government is prohibiting councils from investing in quality or subsidising the quality places for non-working parents.  There are many more reasons why quality in the early years is going backwards, but I don’t have time to go through them all today.

[As others have mentioned, ] we have a growing teacher supply crisis in this country today.  Unless urgent action is taken to address this acute problem, any other education policy is meaningless and will fail.  We all know that the kids who pay the highest price when teacher supply and therefore quality falls, are the kids who are least advantaged and least able to help themselves at home.

Finally on resources, we’ve seen welcome increases to education budgets over the last twenty years and additional targeted interventions like the Pupil Premium, which schools have been able to use to level the playing in everything from one-to-one tuition and support, to paying for uniforms, music lessons and school trips for kids who otherwise wouldn’t’ be able to afford it.  But with the biggest cuts to school budgets over this parliament in a generation – around 8% - I know from talking to Head’s, that it’s exactly that sort of support that’s going first. 

So any government which purports to have an interest in educational equality and social mobility must look seriously and quickly at these three pressing issues.  That’s before we even get to technical education and skills, and access to jobs.  This would be an agenda that could keep Ministers busy.  Why after six months of unnecessary distraction on the now-dropped forced academisation agenda are they creating yet another upheaval of school structures?  But this time, the support for their proposals is even narrower, the evidence base even more flimsy and the outcomes even more divisive.

It’s time to drop these damaging proposals and get back to the task of investing in the early years, addressing the teacher supply crisis and stopping the harmful cuts to schools’ budgets. 


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