CF patron, Baroness Blower presented her private members’ bill to phase out grammar schools in the Lords on December 2nd. The School Reform of Pupil Selection Bill sets out detailed plans for all secondary schools to become comprehensive, and to phase out admission tests. The debate inspired cross-party support and some excellent contributions, some of which can be read below.

Baroness Blower said, “I believe profoundly that it is an important principle that the education service should provide access on an equitable basis to all children and young people. This is not, of course, what happens in the 35 local authorities where access to certain state-funded schools is on a selective basis.” You can read her speech in full HERE.

Conservative peer, Baroness Berridge supported the bill. She said, “the status quo is unacceptable.” She described the many problems with 11-plus selection and said, “the profile of our grammar schools, with few exceptions, is narrow. They do not have many children with additional needs, who are on free school meals or who are looked-after. At the census date last year, 68 of our grammar schools had no looked-after children at key stages 3 or 4. That is a product of not giving priority admissions and selecting on the basis of the entrance test only. If I think back to my school and remove all those children, it would have been a poorer education.”

Lord Watson of Ivergowrie said, “Let us not sugar-coat the issue: grammar schools are often much better at social selection than at academic selection. Many children who succeed in gaining entry to grammar schools are from two categories: those who have attended private prep schools rather than their local primary school and so are already privileged, or those who have remained within the state system but come from families whose parents can afford to pay for private tutoring to ensure their children pass the 11-plus exam.”

He continued, “The truth is that grammar schools are damaging not just to individual young people, but to communities, because they are about being exclusive, not inclusive. Some would say that that is their raison d’être; it is more about who they keep out than who they let in. They do not raise general education standards. My noble friend Lady Blower mentioned Kent, which has the highest number of grammar schools in the country, but also the highest number of failing secondary schools, including academies, of any local authority.” He urged the Labour party to make a manifesto pledge to phase out selection. “If not now, when?”

Baroness Bennett of the Green Party pointed out that her party had a longstanding policy commitment to establishing fully comprehensive education. She quoted three pieces of evidence, including a Durham University study published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education in 2018. She said, “Using the kind of measures that the Government themselves like to use—what it describes as “effectiveness”; that is, exam results—the study found that, once the nature of the intake, including chronic poverty, ethnicity, home language, special educational needs and age of the group, had been taken into account, grammar schools are no more or less effective in outcomes than other schools. They do not achieve what they aim to achieve. The study found that their apparent success is due just to the selection of the pupils.”

Lord Davies of Brixton highlighted the ‘timely’ launch of Time’s Up for the Test.  He fully supported their mission statement, which he quoted, “We want the remnants of the discredited secondary school system which dates back to the 1940s to be swept away. Nowhere in England should young children be divided on the basis of some ill-conceived perception of intelligence. The 11+ should be abolished and every child should have the right to attend a comprehensive school.”

The Lib Dem spokesperson for education, Lord Storey, also supported the bill. He said, “If a hospital was allowed to choose patients and admit only those very lightly injured, its mortality rate would be impressively low. The same goes for schools. If a school is allowed to admit only pupils with above average aptitude, of course its results will be better than those of schools offering education to every student regardless of their abilities. In fact, those who use such data to justify the outdated and frankly traumatising system of selection and rejection would do well to remember the first law of scientific research: association is not causation.”

CF patron, Lord Hunt of King’s Heath, flagged the damaging impact of the 11-plus and its unpopularity. “We need to remember that the move to comprehensive education was hugely popular, because this wretched system that divided children when they took the exam, mostly at 10, was very unpopular with many people. Those who now argue for grammar schools present only the image of children who passed the 11-plus; they never talk about the impact on the others. They simply assume that the comprehensive system, if you like, can just chunter on, without grammar schools having a devastating impact on it.

I do not want to repeat all the statistics that we have heard; they are overwhelming. Grammar schools clearly do not aid social mobility. The big argument that Conservative MPs always trot out is that this will give a leg up to poorer children. It is a very small number of kids. Overwhelmingly, their pupils come from more advantaged social backgrounds. As the social mobility tsar said recently, selective education does not work. You cannot have grammar schools without the 11-plus. You cannot have the 11-plus without paid coaching buying advantage. The whole system is rigged against the poor.”

Lord Hendy, a Labour peer, highlighted his “personal reason” for supporting the bill. He said, “I am one of those who failed the 11-plus. Remembering it now, I do not think I realised then what the significance was of failing that exam, but I remember the sadness of knowing that my mates were going to grammar school while others were going to secondary modern. I remember the shame of the failure of that exam, and I remember the sadness that I brought to my mum and dad for having failed it….

As it turns out, I have not done too badly in life—I have had a very enjoyable career, and here I am among your Lordships—but I do not cite myself as an example. Statistically speaking, I am non-existent. What I am very aware of, and so are noble Lords now from the statistics that others have mentioned today, is that those who fail the 11-plus are most likely condemned to a worse standard of living and a worse enjoyment of life than those who pass… If it is proposed to maintain selection, the Minister should remember the pain that is inflicted on those who are rejected when they fail. That is, as my noble friend Lady Blower mentioned, a scar that I personally bear, and will do so till my dying day.”

Responding to the debate on behalf of the government was the education minister, Baroness Barron. She said,  “we want parents to continue to have a diverse choice of good and outstanding schools that deliver opportunities for every child. Selective schools form a small but important part of this diverse provision. While we have no plans to open new grammar schools, neither do we believe that existing and excellent schools that have, historically, been selective for a very long time should be forced to remove their selective admission arrangements and become comprehensive.”

Baroness Blower closed the debate saying, “This step can be taken now; it is a good step, and it would improve our education system… I believe this would be an important priority for any incoming Labour Government to take on.”

The bill was put forward for the committee stage. The debate can be read in full HERE.