Amanda Spielman, the new Chief Inspector of Schools, has recently suggested, with exquisite understatement, that the next few years are ‘not going to be easy’ for schools as political focus is likely ‘to shift away from education as the government’s time and attention (is) consumed by the process of Britain leaving the EU.’ While a period of calm and consolidation after the hyper-reform of the Gove years might be welcome, it is hard to see the economic uncertainty of Brexit doing anything but exacerbating current pressures in the system, particularly the looming crisis in school funding.
More immediate fears were in evidence at the recent ‘Cradle to Grave’ Conference held by the University and College Union. Speaker after speaker addressed the post-Brexit rise in hate crime, the insecurity of EU nationals working and studying in Britain, the enduring anxiety of refugees already settled here and the sheer meanness of the government’s decision to rescind its commitment, under the Dubs amendment, to take in three thousand child refugees.
One questioner from the floor crystallised the anxiety felt by many when she asked the hall: ‘Is this fascism?’ Others highlighted the newly important role that educators, from the primary phase through to postgraduate studies, will play in the coming years, not just in helping vulnerable students but in promoting deeper understanding of current developments and more tolerant debate.
Of course Brexit has already had a huge impact on the education landscape, with the government’s decision to lift the ban on expanding selective education, rejecting the consensus of the Coalition years that the way forward was to support non-selective free schools and academies. In September, the government published its Green Paper consultation on the question – the rather inappropriately titled, ’Schools that Work for Everyone’.
As Comprehensive Future pointed out in its official response to the document, every question was framed around the assumption that more selection is the right way forward, with respondents asked only to offer suggestions as to how this might work best.
What’s clear is that the Brexit vote has emboldened, and promoted, a cohort of politicians sidelined during the Gove/Morgan years, all of whom believe passionately in grammars. Several of them, David Davis, Michael Fallon and Boris Johnson, have key roles on the front bench. Those with long memories will recall that Fallon has form. As an education minister in 1991 he attacked primary schools for promoting ‘much happiness but little learning,’ as if the two are mutually exclusive. Other leading Eurosceptics and pro-grammar supporters, like Graham Brady MP, Chair of the powerful backbench 1922 Committee, now have more influence on education policy than they have done for years.
In short, a very different kind of Tory is currently in charge. Out with the golden public school boys of the Cameron era who fell in love with the proto-traditional Gove-ian vision of comprehensive education: in with the striving less well-off Conservatives who put their own rise up the ranks down to the miracles of the post-war selective system, itself largely swept away by comprehensive reform.
May’s arguments for the expansion of grammars have deliberate echoes of this earlier period when selection was seen as the means by which the less privileged could make it up the class ladder. The trouble is, there is no tangible evidence for this claim and in a clear echo of the Brexit debate itself, all evidence that contradicts it, then and now, is simply disregarded.
Such evidence points unequivocally in one direction: selection divides communities, profoundly harms the education and life chances of poorer children, and hands superior state resources, at a time of scarcity, to the already affluent, with a catastrophic impact on primary aged education. Nor will the government ever find the ‘holy grail’ of a class-blind 11-plus test that it seeks. The plan currently being mooted – to admit more poorer pupils by lowering the pass mark – will surely founder on the anger of those middle-class families that treat grammars, and other forms of socially biased admissions arrangements, as their right.
Leading academics, numerous school heads, Chief Inspectors past and present, have spoken out against the plan to such an extent that even media and public opinion has now shifted on the issue. Only this week the Education Select Committee declared the policy ‘deficient in evidence’ and a distraction from the clear tasks facing our cash-strapped school system.
For all this the government ploughs on, having allocated £50 million a year to the scheme, with officials and ministers consulting existing grammar school heads on further expansion of selection throughout the country.
For now, then, our main hope must lie in resistance in Parliament if and when a new Education Bill, overturning the decades-long consensus on selective education, is introduced. We know the Labour Party, and other opposition groups, are fiercely opposed and that a significant group of Tory MPs are deeply uneasy at the proposals. Many in the Lords are also plainly unhappy at the plan.
In the coming months, therefore, it is vital that we all put pressure on MPs and Lords to counter this move in any way possible. We have won the public argument. That government is not listening makes it all the more vital that we win the vote.