Among the most pernicious myths in British politics is the quaint delusion that academic selection is a Conservative policy that Labour has always opposed. The truth is rather different and yesterday,  as Michael Gove freed schools to do almost everything except select according to academic ability, the Guardian asked me to write about it. My column seems to have provoked interest in some quarters, support in several and incandescent fury in others. I'm sure you have views. Feel free to share them.




It depends on whether you think the creation of more grammars would lead you to the holy grail of educationalists and politicians of maximising social mobility. The answer, if the system in Kent is anything to go by, is no.

Take a look at all the relative indices of social deprivation and disadvantage and you simply cannot make a claim that selective schooling in 2010 is achieving what it might have done back in the day when these schools might have given a leg up to those from poorer backgrounds. The number of children on free school meals in Kent selective schools is miniscule in relation to those in non-selective schools. for example.

Well-motivated, middle class parents do everything they possibly can to get their children into what are perceived to be 'better' schools (often, actually they're not - better depends on what kind of well-rounded education you want for your children); parents who have the wherewithall to spend money on coaching invariably take up most places and if more were created, I daresay that some of those who choose the private route would have a glint in their eye and be checking out post codes and catchment areas.

Oh, and you shouldn't overlook one telling statistic. Number of grammars in Kent: 33. Number of National Challenge schools (ones deemed to be under-performing and struggling to get to the previous government's target for good GCSE passes)? 33.

And guess what? They're all non-selective.

Oh and David Willets thought the same about expanding grammars, too. And he's got one more brain than me...




Actually, Kent Grammar schools do a great deal to help their pupils compete for places at top universities. The same is true in Medway where many pupils come from families in which neither parent is a graduate. Northern Irish Grammar schools perform even more effectively - taking girls from the Falls Road and lads from the Shankill to excellent universities in disproportionate numbers. I know this debate generates a lot of heat, Paul, so forgive me for making two important points. i) There is no causal link between the number of Grammar schools in Kent and the number of National Challenge Schools. That is just a statistical coincidence. ii) Measuring the success of Grammar Schools according to the number of their pupils who receive free school meals is misleading. Apart from the clear evidence that many families see claiming meals as a social stigma, academic selection must  be needs blind. That is what makes it a social democratic ideal, and recognised as such in many parts of Europe.  The alternative to academic selection is what we have now: selection by parental income. You are right that Grammar schools will not benefit every poor child. They can, however, offer equality of opportunity according to merit not wealth. That's why I support them passionately and wish I'd had a chance to go to one as Gordon Brown, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Barabra Castle and Dennis Healey all did.       

 Academic selection at a young age has a lot of disadvantages.

I will take Germany as an example. In Germany academic selection starts after year four, the last year of primary school, when you are only 10 or 11 years old. If you achieve the German equivalent of the English mark "A" or "B" overall in German, Maths and Science, you can go to the best school. There you can do the German equivalent of A-Levels after year 12 (this has changed recently as it used to be 13).If you achieved a "C" overall, you can go to a school, where you can do the German equivalent to GCSE. However, you can only continue to do A-Levels if you have achieved a really good mark and it will take you longer than if you had gone to a school where you can do A-Levels straight away. If you only achieve a "C" overall, you go to a school where you get a certificate which isn't worth as much as GCSE or A-Levels at all.

In the past (including the generation of my parents) it did not matter as much if you had that certificate or GCSE. To do A-Levels was not as common as today and employers were happy to take you as an apprentice. 

Nowadays, however, employers expect you to have A-Levels or at least a equivalent of A-Levels after you have done your GCSE for almost everything.

The problem is that young children at the age of 10 or 11 do not realise how important it is for their future to study hard and achieve good marks. Some children might have excellent marks in Maths but not in German and Science, or the other way round.

I think academic selection at that age is too soon. However, selection according to parents' income is not a fair way either. 


Education policy