Grammar schools: an opportunity or a threat?

DfE decision for new grammar school extension causes controversy

The decision by the Department for Education to approve a ‘satellite’ extension to a Kent grammar school, the first in 50 years, has caused controversy in the education sector. While grammar schools can offer social mobility for bright pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds, some have argued that offering better education for more able students is elitist.

Ian Driver, former Green Party parliamentary candidate for South Thanet, told the Guardian: “For the government to approve what amounts to a new grammar school by stealth, especially in a county with a massive educational attainment gap between its richest and poorest students, is totally unacceptable. It’s hard to believe that just three weeks ago David Cameron, in his speech to the Tory conference, declared war on institutional discrimination in society, yet now he hypocritically endorses a system based entirely on this damaging and unfair practice. My worry is that this decision will open the floodgates to many more grammar school annexes and satellites across the country, serving only to increase educational inequality and restrict yet further social mobility.”

Stephen Gorard, professor of education at Durham University, has said: “There is repeated evidence that any appearance of advantage for those attending selective schools is outweighed by the disadvantage for those who do not. More children lose out than gain, and the attainment gaps between highest and lowest and between richest and poorest are larger.”

Dr Adam Boddison, Director of the Centre for Professional Education at The University of Warwick, said: “The age-old question of whether grammar schools are a good or a bad thing for society remains unanswered with fierce arguments in both directions. 

“There are those who argue that grammar schools are a vehicle for social mobility and others who argue exactly the opposite point.  Those who attend grammar schools generally receive a good education and achieve better than average outcomes, but I would argue that the real debate is not about the quality of education at grammar schools, but about selection by ability. 

“Our school leaders talk about inclusive education and that means providing appropriate levels of challenge and support for all students, including our most able children.  In 2013, Oftsed’s Chief HMI, Sir Michael Wilshaw, reported that our most able students are underperforming and not reaching their full potential in non-selective state secondary schools, so something needs to be done. 

“We have an issue in this country in that we think catering for our most able students is considered to be elitist, when the reality is that it is about inclusion.  Yes, we need to ensure that all of our schools deliver a high quality education, but there is a role for grammar schools in our society and with demand outstripping supply, it is clear that more strategically placed grammar schools are needed to nurture our most able young people.”

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