Education Secretary Nicky Morgan approves a new 450-pupil selective school in Sevenoaks. Defence Minister and local MP Michael Fallon says he’s “thrilled”, but are grammar schools on the way back?
Backers of the Sevenoaks project got round a ban on new grammar schools by saying that the development would be an annexe of the Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge. Existing schools are allowed to expand if there is sufficient demand.
In a written answer to the House of Commons, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said “I am satisfied that this proposal represents a genuine expansion of the existing school, and that there will be integration between the two sites in terms of leadership, management, governance, admissions and curriculum.”
Noting that 41 per cent of existing Weald of Kent Grammar School pupils travelling from the Sevenoaks area, Ms Morgan added: “I welcome the fact that the newly expanded school will better meet the needs of parents in the local area.”
However, in a blow to those in the Conservative Party hoping that the decision might mean a change in the government’s stated opposition to the expansion of grammar schools, Ms Morgan said her decision “does not reflect a change in this government’s position on selective schools – rather it reaffirms our view that all good schools should be able to expand.”
Not all her colleagues were disheartened though. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, said he was “absolutely thrilled” adding it was “one of my best days as MP of Sevenoaks”.
The issue of grammar schools has been a thorn in the side of the Conservative leadership for years. Many Tories bitterly opposed the policy of phasing them out during the 1960s and 70s.
In 2007 David Cameron provoked the wrath of his party by backing a controversial speech by the then shadow education secretary David Willetts who challenged the widely-held view that grammar schools increased social mobility, pointing out that although they were good for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the chances of such children getting in to a grammar school in the first place was “shockingly low”.
The Conservative Party pledged not to close down any existing grammar schools, but not to allow the creation of any new ones.
In 2011 research by the London School of Economics concluded that “comprehensive schools were as good for mobility as the selective schools they replaced.”
The Education Secretary said on Thursday that half of grammar schools were now consulting on, or already giving priority to children from disadvantaged backgrounds and she wanted them to go further.
However grammar school supporters say selection by academic ability can redress current inequalities in comprehensive education.
Quoting research by the Sutton Trust, Graham Brady MP said: “The most socially selective schools in the country are actually comprehensive schools in very affluent areas, where people are gaining access to those schools by buying houses in expensive catchment areas.
“That isn’t a fair system.”
Grammar school supporters include Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who has described their decline as a “tragedy”, and Home Secretary Theresa May, who has supported the idea of a new grammar school in her Maidenhead constituency.
Responding to the decision to allow the new school in Sevenoaks Dr Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said the government should put more money into local authority-funded schools “because all children have a right to a first-class education, not just those who can pay for the private tuition to get them through the 11- plus.”
Grammar schools select their pupils on academic ability, often requiring applicants to take the 11-plus test in the final year of primary school.
Grammar schools only educated the brightest 25 per cent of students.
From the 1960s many grammar schools were closed or merged with other schools, with the aim of improving educational standards for a larger proportion of pupils.
There are still 164 grammar schools across England, with a particular concentration in Buckinghamshire and Kent.