Learning the wrong lessons

Dartford MP Gareth Johnson recently announced he supported proposals to open new grammar schools. He is backing the wrong policy, at the wrong time, with the wrong priorities for parents, children and teachers.

The Tories obsession with opening new grammar schools has been skulking around at the back of the class for decades. Until recently, it was the policy that dared not speak its name. Now it’s out in the open- abandoning the position the Tories went into the last election on and regrettably, severing what was a shared position between the two main political parties — that no new grammar schools should be opened, but existing grammars should be maintained.

So why the change of policy? And what does it say about how our MP and the government are tackling a lack of school places or supporting Dartford families to access a high quality school for their kids?

Most obviously, it’s admission of failure. The Tories have failed to deliver the new school places they promised or to drive higher standards. In Dartford, a chronic shortage of local places has seen families forced to send their children to schools miles away from home. Under the Tories class sizes have mushroomed, significantly exceeding the international average and they have missed teacher recruitment targets for four years in a row.

Parents need the government to focus on widening access to a high quality comprehensive education. The challenge is to tackle the lack of local places, too high class sizes and the crisis of morale that has seen the highest number of teachers quitting the profession since records began.

Opening new grammar schools won’t fix any of that. That’s why the Tory plan is the wrong priority that fails to deal with the very real and serious challenges facing our schools.

None of the reasons given by the Tories to justify new grammars bear scrutiny.

Gareth Johnson claims that new grammar schools will offer parents more choice, but they currently make up just 5% of the school estate. Opening a few more is only going to have negligible impact on the ‘choice’ available for parents.

More importantly, and what the Tories don’t seem to get — is the ability of parents to exercise choice can be hugely influenced by a number of factors. We know that parents on lower incomes, single parent families and parents of disabled children can find it more difficult to access the resources, tuition, or appropriate study environments needed to meet the entry requirements of grammars.

This puts to bed the ‘social mobility’ argument. There is little to no evidence that grammar schools have ever had any impact on social mobility one way or another. The growth in wages and diversification of the job market has had a much bigger impact.

What the evidence does tell us is that many kids from poorer backgrounds just don’t make it to grammar schools in the first place. A fantastic opportunity if you get there, but poorer kids aren’t getting there and building more grammars won’t solve that problem, it will simply perpetuate it.

Selective systems tend to end up with schools ‘choosing’ the kids they want. Labour believes in creating an education system where all parents can choose the school THEY want.

Government spending on education has to be aimed at the right interventions for improving standards and achievement. This is truly how we can have a positive impact on social mobility. It is also the key flaw in the Tory policy. Grammar schools in Dartford are ALREADY at a high standard. What Gareth Johnson wants to do is to re-direct funding away from where it’s desperately needed, towards schools which are already achieving, already delivering to a high standard. This has got to be wrong approach. It doesn’t address the needs of parents, kids or teachers, risks entrenching the gap between achieving and non-achieving schools and widens the gap in academic achievement between the richest and poorest students.

So what should be happening? The first priority for any government should be to invest in our comprehensive school system to upgrade facilities, retain and motivate teachers, lower class sizes and ensure more good local schools are opened. Opening more selective schools will not address any of these issues to any significant degree.

We need a focus on turning around failing schools and improving standards for all. In government, Labour achieved record levels of literacy and numeracy. In 1997, only half of 11-year-olds were up to basic standard in literacy and numeracy. On leaving office it was three-quarters. 60,000 more 16-year-olds a year were getting five or more good GCSEs on leaving office then when we came to power.

We did that by being obsessed — but not with particular types of school like the Tories. Instead, Labour was obsessed with empowering teachers, providing parents with a genuine choice of a good local school and giving every kid the chance to get the best possible education and a decent start in life.

We need also need to renew our focus on early years’ development. The right interventions at this stage can have a huge impact on the future a child’s life as primary and secondary school years. If we are serious about narrowing the gap in attainment between poorer children and their wealthier peers — this is where we start to make a difference.
 
Improvements to our education system are never made by putting — as the Tories are — ideology before outcomes. There are great schools in Dartford and across the country. We should learn from all high achieving schools so we can role model success across the country.

However, there are failings in the school system too. If new grammars are the Conservative answer to failure in our education system then they risk leaving thousands of kids behind, in pursuit of widening the gap between good schools and the rest.

It’s not the answer to how we provide higher quality education for all and improved academic outcomes and attainment.

We need bring everyone in and move everyone up together. Under the Tories outdated education vison, it’s still the case of the haves and the have nots.

Jonathon Hawkes is Leader of the Labour Group on Dartford Borough Council.