On Friday December 4th Conservative Voice launched a petition ‘for the Government to make the expansion of Grammar Schools part of their manifesto’ referring to the remaining 164 grammar schools (actually there are 163).  With the support of MPs Liam Fox, Graham Brady and David Davis it claims that they want to introduce  ‘choice for parents’ seeming not to realise that only when schools stop selecting do parents have the most choice.

The campaign website has a short film setting out their reasoning with clips of events at grammar schools. It is worth watching to hear the evidence they quote since it has been so effectively refuted by the subsequent responses.

In a detailed evidence based blog Jonathan Simon and Natasha Porter of Policy Exchange set out 5 reasons why a return to grammar schools is a bad idea. They say –

‘The single biggest predictor of how a child will do at the age of 16 is the educational qualifications of their parents. That stark fact ought to dominate education discussion in England, and any Secretary of State for Education should therefore have it as their priority to ensure everyone can succeed regardless of background. Despite some positive indications of change, there are still huge gaps between the poorest and richest children which begin from the moment of birth and increase through early years and primary education.

One of the most heartening developments over the past decade has been a cross party focus on how best we can raise performance and close the gap. Such an approach is grounded in evidence – from high performing countries across the world, and also from the best schools in this country – which shows that only by focussing efforts on raising standards for all, rather than offering solutions or escapes for a few, can we achieve the scale of improvement across the system which changes lives.

But enter grammar schools – back in the public debate as a solution for improving outcomes and allowing poorer children in particular to escape the circumstances of their birth. At least two applications for new ‘satellite’ grammar schools are shortly to land on Nicky Morgan’s desk, Boris Johnson has called them ‘an important part of the mix’, and Liam Fox, David Davis and Dominic Raab are amongst senior Conservatives endorsing the Conservative Voice campaign calling for the 2015 manifesto to allow wholly new selective schools to open – as UKIP already supports.

According to their advocates, the steady abolition of grammars throughout the 1960s and 1970s was a prime reason behind declining social mobility during the latter 20th century, and an expansion of selective schools would turbocharge mobility in the future. There is only one issue with this argument. That is – and there is really no easy way to put this – it is not true’.

They go on to detail their evidence. On social mobility –

‘A whole raft of evidence from a range of studies in recent years shows convincingly how increased social mobility post war reflected a one off structural shift in the economy with an expansion of white collar jobs; and that grammar schools may have provided a better outcome for those few who attend them, but such benefits are entirely cancelled out, and more besides, by the negative consequences for the majority in these areas who attend secondary moderns.

The authors quote the evidence that pay gaps in selective areas show that ‘grammar schools entrench social division, rather than solve it’, grammar schools take far fewer poor pupils and grammars didn’t help the poor in the past. For example a third of those pupils from the most deprived backgrounds in grammars left without a single O-Level and fewer than 0.3 per cent of pupils leaving with two A-levels were from the unskilled working class.

On the BBC Today programme and in Sec Ed the online publication on secondary education, Professor Chris Husbands,  Director of the Institute of Education, set out the evidence against this call for more grammars and selection (see the full article from Sec Ed on the website)  He quoted the huge disparity in proportions of children eligible for free school meals; that tests cannot reliably discriminate between those who are academically able and those who are not; that it is not possible to test for academic ability at age 11 in a way which is valid,  ie a test which is strongly predictive of performance later and that it is not possible to design tests which test academic ability and nothing else, such as socio-economic status.

Graham Brady relies heavily on the GCSE results in Trafford to prove his case, but as John Bolt in his blog Education for Everyone pointed out on the day of the Tory launch (5th December) comprehensive Hackney produces better results.

Although encouraged by the Sutton Trust, the DfE and the Grammar School Heads Association it seems the even the change to ‘tutor proof tests’ which aims to increase the intake from those whose parents cannot afford to pay for tutoring has failed. The campaign in Bucks, Local Equal and Excellent has shown even more pupils are entering grammar schools from prep schools and the tests remain hugely divisive.

Meanwhile in a new pamphlet from Demos A Tale of Two Classrooms , a useful contribution to the discussion about how the education inequality gap can be bridged Professor Stephen Gorard says –

‘A national school system, intended to have mixed intakes, should be comprehensive in nature, and without curricular specialisation, religious identity, and financial or academic selection. The same admissions criteria should apply to every school. Schools should not select by attainment or aptitude, student background or faith’.