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 Selected story in full
09 September 2016
Grammar schools allowed to open again

A personal view on the changes announced today to allow the opening of new grammar schools again from Cllr Tim Pollard.

As a former grammar school boy (and a parent whose son was fortunate enough to go to one of the few remaining ones around here) I am absolutely delighted that Theresa May has today announced the lifting of the ridiculous ban on the opening of new grammar schools introduced by Tony Blair.

With some safeguards built in to the legislation to ensure that grammar schools are genuinely selecting on academic potential and are equally and fairly open to potential pupils of all backgrounds, many of the old arguments against grammar schools fall away.

When I passed my 11 plus in the 70s and won a place at the local grammar school (long gone and replaced by a housing estate) in rural Gloucestershire, it was true that failure to win a place meant accepting a distinctly second-rate education at the alternative, the village secondary modern. At that school the assumption was that the pupils had no need for academia and even the most able pupils would struggle to overcome the curriculum bias in favour of practical subjects.

In those days it was often true that success or failure in achieving a place at the local grammar was a life-changing event.

These days there should be no risk of that. A full range of subjects from academic to vocational is taught at all the alternatives to any grammar school and no pupil’s life chances should be hindered if they do not win a place at the new generation of grammar schools.

And I am particularly pleased that the PM recognises that it should be possible to switch in to a grammar school at ages other than 11, such as before starting GCSE courses or A levels. That’s not unlike the system operated in Germany, where it is possible to change academic track at several points during a pupil’s secondary career.

It is also important to remember that, in contrast to the old 11 Plus test, modern grammar school selection tests are much harder to ‘cram’ for and are much more successful in identifying academic potential rather than academic knowledge.

Croydon residents with long memories may recall that I created an opportunity for the expansion of a nearby grammar school into a Croydon site when I was the local cabinet member for education. We identified a site available for a school annexe (seen in the story photo) – whether a grammar or a comprehensive – and made it available for ‘bids’ from local schools. Whilst there was no presumption about whether the site would go to a grammar school or successful comprehensive, the opportunity was explicitly there for any grammar that wished to take it.

 In the end, although one of our nearby grammar schools did a lot of work on the idea, no grammar school ultimately put itself forward for the site and it became part of the Oasis school in Woodside ward. Most likely the reason for the lack of takers for that project was the risk to the grammars in trying to use a loophole then existing in the new schools ban, which perhaps allowed for off-site expansion within what was legally the same school.

This legal loophole is what led to the pilot for current grammar school expansions, where a Tonbridge-based grammar school sought to expand into a site in Sevenoaks, encouraged by the local Tory council. This kicked off a year or so before Croydon’s attempt, but has taken over five years to come to fruition, due to legal challenges and hurdles. That situation, where a school that virtually everyone wished to see expand to meet a new community’s needs was delayed by politically-correct regulation, is now history.

Instead of having to look for tenuous loopholes to allow more grammar school capacity, local authorities can now be open about it.

The Labour party is already screaming from the rooftops about this  planned change in the law. There’s nothing the left hates more than selection by ability (presumably that’s why they chose Jeremy Corbyn as their leader…).

Over the coming weeks and months we will doubtless hear endless twaddle from well-meaning lefties about ‘how grammar schools do nothing for social mobility’. At the moment they can make that case with a tiny bit of justification, but only because there are so few grammar schools that only the most determined families succeed in getting the places.

In this area, with only a few grammar schools in neighbouring Sutton and Bromley to go for, many more pupils ‘pass’ the exam than there are places. That is to say they demonstrate that they would be able to cope with the more academic ethos, but are beaten to the places by pupils who score even more highly. It is only when the grammar schools are able to achieve a higher proportion of all school places available that true social mobility kicks in – where there are enough places for all the pupils who would gain by a grammar school education to have one.

I really hope that Croydon will be at the forefront of authorities working with successful schools to provide new grammar schools. Unfortunately I think it may take a change in political control at the town hall to make that a reality. So, parents, if you want a new grammar school (or two) in Croydon, you know what you have to do in 2018…

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