Leading article: We can't be selective about grammars

 

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Both friends and foes of grammar schools will be watching closely to see what signals emerge from the office of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, following our report on how some leading grammar school heads wish to rejoin the state sector if they can carry on selecting.

The Conservative MP Graham Brady, a trenchant supporter of grammars, says several schools have told him they would like to come back to the state fold if they can still choose pupils.

Therein lies the rub, because the selection question remains extraordinarily divisive in politics and the school system, with Labour firmly committed to non-selective admissions and the Tories in theory signed up to the same principle – but in practice seeking wriggle room.

Mr Brady's point is that the talk emanating from all parties about parental choice is empty and insincere if, in reality, it boils down to "only having a free school if it is not selective".

He is right to point to the ambivalent character of the message being sent to parents now, which appears to be that it is fine to opt for selection if you are rich enough to afford an independent school – but that if you are poor, dream on. Many people feel that there is an element of manifest hypocrisy in this approach, which is why Mr Gove is visibly straining at the leash, saying on the one hand that no new grammar schools will be created on his watch – but that the existing 164 schools are welcome to expand if they wish to.

But allowing surviving grammars to grow is not a solution to the selection argument, it is merely a means to avoid having to come down on one side or the other. It is unsatisfying, even as a provisional solution, because the surviving grammars are not evenly spread around the country; only a handful of education authorities, such as Kent, are fully selective. As a result, expanding the grammars will only confirm the existing differences between various educational authorities, which can't be a good idea.

If Mr Gove believes that grammars are a good thing, which he presumably does, hence their invitation to expand, it raises the question about why the bar is retained on the establishment of new ones.

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