Comprehensive Future’s Chair, Dr Nuala Burgess, reviews a busy year of campaigning.
This has been another rollercoaster year for education. Thanks largely to the churn of Prime Ministers, we are now, unbelievably, on our fifth education secretary in four months and that makes 10 in 12 years. In effect, we have been without an active education secretary ever since the departure of Johnson. As we know, nature abhors a vacuum and for a short while over the summer the lack of real oxygen in education left room for a small pro-grammar school lobby led by Graham Brady and his henchman Jonathan Gullis. Liz Truss’s short-lived premiership (and fib-telling about the ‘failures’ of her comprehensive school) appear to have silenced the group and its steady stream of inaccuracies about the levelling up magic of grammar schools – for now, at least.
Perversely, the amount of publicity given to Brady and Gullis, mostly by the Daily Telegraph, was very useful in once again raising Comprehensive Future’s profile with a welcome renewal of media interest in our work. An excellent article by education journalist Sally Weale in the Guardian in September quoted a veritable list of ‘experts’ – Comprehensive Future included – explaining why grammar schools don’t work. The article was long and detailed, and contained a whole section devoted entirely to Comprehensive Future’s new 11+ Anonymous website where pupils, parents, teachers have shared, anonymously, their experiences of the 11+ and being educated at a grammar school.
If you have not already seen the 11+ Anonymous website, I urge you to take a look. It is a unique resource and although it can make painful reading, it is doing such important work – serving as both an archive of 11+ experiences (for the day when can assign the test to history) and a place for those who are experiencing the effects of academic selection now, today. If there is one message we have to communicate to those who continually cite stories of penniless Uncle Bert who passed the 11+ and went on to be a multi millionaire, in justification of grammar schools, it is that Uncle Berts were always, and remain, extremely rare.
The 11+ today is a vicious, competitive system where money buys advantage. Where money buys the necessary coaching to drag mostly middle-class children over the pass/fail borderline, or buys a fee-paying prep school education which, as our stats suggest, guarantees an 11+ pass and a grammar school place.
I have referred there to ‘our stats’. I think one of our biggest achievements this year was the completion of the massive year-long research project by Jo, our incredible campaign support worker, to produce Comprehensive Future’s Interactive Map of Selective Education. It is a unique and extraordinary resource of information, containing every possible statistic and essential fact, many found through freedom of information requests. Our interactive map reveals all about every single grammar school in England, its admissions, the make-up if its pupil population and perhaps most importantly, its impact on schools in the surrounding area.
As well as the interactive map, and 11+ Anonymous, another big part of our work this year has been gathering a cross-party Coalition of the great and good (authors, MPs, academics, and members of think tanks and education unions) who want to see the end of the 11+ once and for all. Although we have been keen to make this something of which Comprehensive Future is a part and not the lead, I think it’s fair to say that we drive this Coalition.
Earlier this month the Coalition’s ‘Times Up for the Test’ campaign launched at Hamilton House with a short screening of an excellent film, which you can now view on YouTube, and speakers including Andy Burnham, Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, Jackie Malton (the women on whom the character of Jane Tennyson in Prime Suspect is based) and child psychologist Dr Tara Porter.
It’s been a busy time for our campaign and the very day after the launch, on December 2nd, one of our most active patrons Baroness Blower, presented the second reading of her Private Members’ Bill in the House of Lords. Entitled the School (Reform of Pupil Selection) Bill, the aim of which is to, ‘Prohibit state-funded schools from admitting students wholly or partially on the basis of criteria relating to ability or aptitude; and for connected purposes.’
Christine’s Private Members’ Bill calls for the end of selection in our state education system, and we are delighted that there was a fantastic show of support in the Lords. The bill was welcomed by Labour, Lib Dem, Green and Conservative peers, and truly achieved cross-party support. We are grateful to Christine for all her hard work and look forward to the bill being reviewed again at the committee stage.
Next year is going to be a very hard year for everyone but especially hard for our schools. The £3 billion promised to education in the recent budget is a miserly sum, and does little to compensate the effects of cuts over the last 12 years and rising inflation. In this climate, every penny counts and it is our wonderful comprehensive schools with their inclusive admissions, which shoulder the greater financial cost of educating children who are disadvantaged, on Free School Meals, pupil premium or have additional educational needs. Grammar schools with their tiny proportions of working-class and disadvantaged pupils, put an unnecessary and increasingly heavy burden on non-selective schools.
Comprehensive Future’s big message for 2023 and for the next few years of austerity, is that England’s education system can no longer afford the financial cost of grammar schools, nor the social and emotional damage that they inflict on our children and our communities. In times of hardship there is something especially repugnant about the existence of any state-funded school being allowed to preserve some notion of being ‘superior’ or ‘special’ merely by rejecting children they do not wish to educate. If there was ever a time to campaign for and build a wholly Comprehensive Future for our children, it is now.
Thank you very much once again to all of you for your continued support from me, Comprehensive Future’s Vice Chairs Melissa Benn and John Edmonds, Jo our Campaign Support Worker, and everyone on the Comprehensive Future Steering Committee.