Full marks: An enlightened approach to grammar school admissions in Birmingham has the potential to be of national benefit

 

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The Independent Online

Thanks to the so-called Trojan horse affair, Birmingham’s schools have recently become a focus of attention for all the wrong reasons.

But an experiment undertaken by their distinguished King Edward VI group of grammar  schools contains much more promise for the children of the city – and nationally too.

Among the too-few survivors of the fine grammar school tradition in the North and Midlands, the King Edward VI schools have long enjoyed a justified reputation for academic excellence and as a ladder of opportunity for at least some disadvantaged children. Yet those life chances have sometimes been exaggerated. When the schools minister, David Laws, scanned the statistics on the social background of grammar school entrants he found himself “genuinely shocked” by their narrowness.

In fact, in some cases, grammar schools long represented something of a “middle class racket”, offering a public school-style education, courtesy of the taxpayer, for children overwhelmingly from the professional classes, people who could often afford to pay for a private education. Indeed when the grammar schools were mostly abolished 50 or so years ago, the private sector was precisely where those parents turned. Some towns and cities saw grammar schools reborn or refounded as fee-paying establishments.

Whatever the history, though, the King Edward VI group is to be congratulated on its decision to relax entrance requirements for children qualifying for the pupil premium. The experiment has proved a success, and it shows how a more pragmatic and enlightened approach to academic selection can both humanise and democratise it. Once despised by the left, selection on grounds of academic ability should not be regarded as necessarily always elitist. Supplemented by streaming, and with room left for “second-chance” grammar school entry at a later stage – say at age 14 – it can deliver better results for more children than the comprehensives that are so profoundly out of fashion. Though it is heresy to utter it for many in the educational world, free schools might also one day develop into democratic grammar schools, on the model pioneered in Birmingham.

There are other lessons, too. “Outreach” may be an ugly word, but the efforts now being made in Birmingham to help pupils sit the 11-plus exam on more equal terms are laudable. A belief that a good education culminating in a degree from a world-class university is “not for us” permeates far too many homes. Anything that breaks it down is welcome.

We have now had half a century of educational experimentation involving changes to curricula, exams and, most of all, school structures. Grafted on top of traditional grammar schools, church schools and comprehensives were sixth-form colleges, grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges, academies, faith schools and free schools. Partnerships with distinguished public schools and the private sector have also been tried out.

The ecology of British secondary education is more varied now than at any time since the passage of the 1870 Act that marked the start of national state-funded education. “Let a thousand flowers bloom” is a cliché, and an ambition rarely fulfilled in education, but the Birmingham experiment has certainly blossomed into something that should be emulated more widely. Indeed, there would be little harm in extending it to the admissions procedures of colleges and universities, especially at Oxbridge. Historically, some of these have already run such schemes, with no damage to academic tradition or excellence. Class and race rank as the most pernicious dividing lines in British society; far from entrenching them, this system of selection by potential could help dissolve them.

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