Friday, 10 March 2017

Is Theresa May turning into Donald Trump?

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Did you go to a grammar school? And if you did, did you get a good education?

If the answer to both those questions is Yes, you may very well have welcomed the government's pledge in the budget this week to make extra money available for new schools that will be allowed to choose their pupils according to academic ability.

So here's another question: Do you believe that encouraging the establishment of more grammar schools gives parents more choice about where to send their children to school? If your answer is Yes again, I fear you are sadly mistaken.

Because the whole point of selective schools is that it is not the parents who do the choosing. It's the schools. And that -- as those of you with long memories will recall -- is why grammar schools were abolished: too many parents were left angry and disappointed when their 11-year-old children were labelled 'failures' and shunted off to secondary modern schools.

It also explains, as Simon Jenkins pointed out in The Guardian, why even Margaret Thatcher, as education secretary in 1970, knew better than to halt the move away from selective schools. Tory voters did not like the idea of going back to a system in which their children risked being written off as 11-plus failures.

In a speech last September, Theresa May said: 'For far too many children in Britain, the chance they have in life is determined by where they live, or how much money their parents have.' That comes close to being an 'alternative fact' of Trumpist proportions. (Trump believes he won the biggest electoral victory since Ronald Reagan, and that Barack Obama bugged his phones, but that's not true either.)

Good schools that offer children good life chances do not exist only in leafy suburbs or where parents are able to pay for the privilege of a private education. Good schools exist wherever good, motivated teachers are given the resources they need to educate, encourage and inspire the children who come through their doors every morning. And there is no evidence whatsoever to back Mrs May's belief that selective schools offer bright children better chances in later life. It is dogma, pure and simple.

There is, however, plenty of evidence that providing government money to encourage more selective schools is an extravagant misuse of scarce resources. What possible sense can it make to allocate £320 million for the establishment of 110 new free schools, some of which will be selective, and only £216 million for the 20,000 existing state schools? (Declaration of interest: both my children were educated at a state comprehensive school.)

The budgets of mainstream schools are still being cut, year after year. According to a survey of 1,000 school staff in England published in January, 80% said their school either had made cutbacks or was planning to, a third said their schools were not replacing teachers who leave, and 14% said that teachers at their schools were being made redundant.

That is the current reality in the state system: fewer teachers, fewer support staff, fewer books, and morale at rock bottom. Little wonder that this week the head teachers of more than a thousand schools have sent out letters to parents and MPs warning that their budgets are at breaking point.

In last year's budget, the then chancellor George Osborne -- the one who is now being paid £650,000 a year to work one day a week at the asset manager Black Rock -- announced that all schools would be forced to turn themselves into independently-run academies by 2020. Less than two months later, the idea was scrapped in the face of near-universal opposition.

Now, his successor, Philip Hammond, is in hot water over his proposal to increase national insurance contributions for the self-employed. So I have the perfect solution for him: scrap the NI increase, and fill the hole in the accounts by also scrapping the free school cash allocation.

That way, white van man will be happy and his children will have a better chance of getting a better education.  Win-win -- maybe I should drop a note to the chancellor.


Leslie Johnson said...

I had to sit the 11+ twice as I was classified as 'borderline'. In the end I was sent to a secondary modern school. I now hold an MA, M.Phil.; Fellow of my professional body and various other bits of paper. It just took me longer to get there than if I had gone to a grammar school. I seem to recall that the 'research' used to justify selection was proved to be false years ago- something to do with twins.

Susie Symes said...

There is underlying strategy to allocating £2.9 million for every new free school, but only £10,800 for every existing state school, if no sense (your question, asking 'what is the sense'). By grossly distorting available resources, this further distorts outcomes. New free schools should do relatively better, old state schools already hard-pressed and struggling, will do comparatively worse. These results then support shifting further support to the winners away from the losers; the policy becomes self justifying.

I don't know, however, and you don't say, if we are comparing like for like when we look at these budget allocations.

Like the piece, but isn't your headline click-bait?

Anonymous said...

Why, Robin, in this day and age are so-called "public" schools still allowed to be registered charities? In an age during which the current Tory government is getting away with selling off our real public schools to the private sector, under the hat of "academies", we now have the utter farce of tax-payer funded schools having to pay increased tax on money made from any solar panels they've had installed (partly to cut their costs to the public, partly to increase money for spending on their students' wider education), while the schools which educate the rich get away with paying nothing.