Margaret Tulloch wrote to Keir Starmer questioning the Labour Party’s policy on academic selection. The letter is an excellent summary of the many problems with the 11-plus, and her introduction explains how long CF have been pressing for change.
Twenty years ago this month in January 2003 I, along with the then Labour MP David Chaytor and the late Malcolm Horne, then General Secretary of the Socialist Education Association launched Comprehensive Future with the support of over 100 Labour party supporters. Our aim was to influence Labour policy to commit to an end to selection on ability and aptitude. Speakers at the launch in a room in Parliament included the late Frank Dobson MP and a fairly new MP, Andy Burnham. We got publicity but no change. Two years later Comprehensive Future took the sensible decision to become open to all, both cross and no party and encourage support from everyone. Soon the steering group included Labour and Lib Dem members.
But it has to be said that despite Comprehensive Future’s success in highlighting the need for an end to selection and for fair admissions there is still no commitment from the Labour party. Soon there will be another opportunity for Constituency Labour Parties to call for that, as the National Policy Forum consults on policies until March 17th. I do hope some CLPs will do so.
But as an ordinary Labour member I wrote recently to Keir Starmer, who pledged if elected as Leader of the Labour Party to ‘pull down obstacles that limit opportunities and talent’. I wrote with the benefit of 20 frustrating years of hindsight lobbying Labour ministers and Shadow Ministers.
Comprehensive Future secretary 2003 – 2017
Here is Margaret’s excellent letter to Keir Starmer.
3 November 2022
Dear Sir Keir,
I am a long-standing Labour member. For many years from the late 80s I was the secretary of the Campaign for State Education and in 2003 set up Comprehensive Future with the then MP David Chaytor and the late Malcolm Horne. I am writing in a personal capacity.
It seems possible that the Tory administration will not move on creating more grammar schools just yet, but the idea has not gone away. Labour conference has supported comprehensive education since 1942. Surely it is time for Labour to grasp this nettle, be bold and state a clear policy opposing selection at 11 and how it should be ended?
Over the years, from Labour supporters, Labour ministers and the right wing press I have probably heard all the reasons why Labour should not act on selection. I list them below. If this commitment is to be made then Labour will need to face up to prejudice, myths and false arguments. This is why I am writing in the hope that plans can be made now.
When I voted for you as leader it was because you said you would ‘pull down obstacles that limit opportunities and talent’. Selection in England is a major one of those obstacles. In the many local authorities where selection remains, year after year many children are given the message that education is not for them.
It saddens me greatly to think if this nettle had been grasped in 1997, with the majority that Government had, selection at 11 would be a distant memory.
In 1998, following the School Standards and Framework Act I set up ‘ Say NO to selection’, a campaign within CASE to support any groups trying to use the petitioning and balloting provisions. As a result the Daily Telegraph set up an opposing campaign and I was interviewed and photographed as were grammar school heads. The photographer told me that at least one head had told him he had fully expected Labour to end selection and had been quite prepared to go along with it.
The evidence of the damage resulting from selection at 11 and its unfairness is clear. It emerges every time there are Tory proposals for more grammars. Professor Chris Husbands has said ‘there is no academically credible argument in favour of selection for grammar schools at age 11’. If evidence is needed by the education team it can, I know, be provided. The Comprehensive Future website has a wealth of evidence. Even Michael Gove said recently ‘we should not be looking backwards into an educational situation where we’re dividing children between those destined for success, and those overlooked’. The memory of rejection at 11 lasts a lifetime for many and that this is no way to build a society which needs to keep on learning. There are sound educational reasons to end selection on ability and aptitude at 11.
The arguments Labour must face
We mustn’t close good schools
Quite right – so promise to keep the schools open and change their admissions to non selective from year 7 onwards. No child needs to move, no staff to change. Sir Peter Newsam worked in areas where comprehensive education was introduced. In many conversations he has explained to me that reassurances given to parents in the grammars, that their children would not be affected, eased the transition to comprehensive. I think Bridget Phillipson said something like “I’m more interested in what goes on inside the classroom than the name above the door”. As comprehensives Ilkley and Harrogate Grammars show, schools can be good comprehensives without changing the name, just their admissions. NHS hospitals are open to all, why should state schools be different? Labour should be clear that this is about ending selection not attacking or closing any school. There are two traps which have alienated potential supporters and should be avoided – talking about abolishing schools and attacking secondary moderns where there are teachers working hard to overcome the damage done by failure.
A few schools don’t matter
36 Local authorities, roughly a quarter of all English local authorities, have one or more grammar schools. Pupils move across ‘comprehensive’ local authorities to selective schools. As an example Education Datalab said in 2016 that ‘It is reasonable to describe the whole of south London, except for Southwark and Lambeth, as a selective schooling system since significant numbers of the highest attaining pupils are migrating to grammar schools.’ So the existence of selection affects the intake of a significant number of other schools. Furthermore there is life long effect of failure at an early age on those rejected.
We don’t want to focus on structures
Ending selection is not a structural issue it is an educational issue. It affects aspirations. It embeds disadvantage. Structures relate to who runs the schools, how they are accountable for spending public money and how those making the decisions are appointed. Clearly this needs attention but ending selection is not a structural change, it is a move to a fairer system. In many places selection is, in fact, an environmental issue as large numbers of children travel to school.
But what about faith schools and private schools- shouldn’t we tackle them first?
This is a red herring used by people who do not want to see selection ended. Private schools and the privilege they confer and selection by faith present different problems. They need attention but they are not the same as the problems resulting from the 11-plus or selection by so called ‘aptitude’.
We have selection in everyday life, why not in schools?
There are many times we face failure and have to deal with it. But failing the driving test does not mean never ever having a chance to learn to drive. A message of failure at 10 like this should not happen to children half way through their school career. Education should be about opening doors not closing them. We need an education system based not on pass or fail at 10 but one which provides the support and resources needed for every child and a recognition that this can vary from child to child.
It must be a local decision.
If selection is wrong for children in some areas it is wrong everywhere. The Labour policy fudge of petitions and ballots, which many suspect had the aim of pushing any idea of ending selection into the long grass, must not be resurrected. I worked with the Ripon campaign and know the weaknesses. However if Labour cannot accept making this gradual change to non – selective intakes then Labour must argue for change but allow perhaps just primary parents to vote to keep selection, in a similar way as with the previous legislation. But this must be against a well-argued evidenced national Governmental position that selection should be ended. There will be parents who fear that their children will lose out. This has to be addressed, promises made must be kept.
We will have selection by mortgage.
It is difficult to understand on what planet those who make this argument are living if they do not know that money makes a huge difference where there is selection. There is an industry of tutoring. We could use those tutors to help overcome the disastrous effect on schools of the pandemic. In any case if your parents fail to move to the right street at least then the child does not get a message of failure. The Labour government did much to make admissions fairer. But because of academisation, which has created many independent admission authorities, the whole issue of admissions will need another review. Ending selection would simplify that task greatly.
It will be a vote loser – it’s realpolitik
This seems a strange argument since the selective system fails the majority of children whose parents are voters. Did New Labour really estimate how many votes they would have lost in 1997 had it committed to change? The then Labour MP Bob Marshall Andrews opposed the 11-plus in selective Medway and was elected and re-elected. Explaining why selection should go and how it can be done must start now.
One day, one day we will do it.
This used to be another message from Labour in power, we will do it when all schools are better, failing to recognise that the performance of many ‘successful’ schools is related to their intakes. London Challenge did help schools improve by working together and Labour should be proud of that. There are many excellent schools which do not select. We must use them as role models
We need choice and diversity.
Even some Labour politicians seem to think that a true comprehensive can exist next door to a grammar school. A comprehensive with grammars in the area is not a comprehensive. Selection gives the choice to schools not parents and children. Diversity of curriculum is possible within properly resourced comprehensive schools.
Selection will wither on the vine
This claim was made in the early days of the Labour government. It clearly has not happened. Grammars have been allowed to expand, undermining on the idea that the 11-plus magically selects those suited to a selective education not just those for whom there are places in the building.
Other countries select and they do better than England
According to PISA’s world education rankings, most of the top performing systems do not separate students into different tracks based on academic ability until 15 or 16 years old. Then of course the pupils themselves can be involved in making the choice, with their eyes set on their futures.
Grammar schools offer a route out of poverty
The data refutes that. In any case we do not want an education system built out of rejection and escape routes. We should not base the entitlement to a particular school on a test taken by children just over 10 years old. Generation after generation of pupils are told half way through their school careers that they have not made the grade. Ending selection would result in levelling up. Andreas Schleicher, Director, Directorate for Education and Skills PISA has said ‘the evidence from PISA shows no positive correlation between early selection and better overall academic outcomes, but it does show a strong correlation between selection and the impact of social background on learning outcomes.”
Parents like grammar schools
It should not be assumed that even parents who send their children to grammar schools prefer a selective system. Many parents over the years have made that point to me. If grammars are there it seems to parents if they don’t put their child in for the test it is saying their child is not as good as their primary friends. I have spoken to comprehensively educated parents who have moved for example to Bucks and were horrified to find that selection still exists. All parents want excellent schools and all children deserve them.
Schools can be excellent without selecting their pupils first.