The news that up to 50 Labour MPs are preparing to call for academic selection to be scrapped will, inevitably, re-ignite the debate about the future of England’s 164 remaining grammar schools. This will undoubtedly create a real headache for the Conservatives who, under David Cameron, have adopted a ‘no more selection’ policy for the nation’s secondary schools. The problem with this position is that it is inherently flawed. If, as Mr Cameron and David Willetts have argued in the past, selection by ability is wrong, why is it still right in some parts of England? It is surely an absurd that we have outlawed selection via the back door and but still allow it through the front door in 36 local authorities in England.
If David Cameron really is a conviction politician, he could easily take the position that being opposed to selection does not automatically mean that you want grammar schools to close. In a post-selection world, there is absolutely no reason why the remaining 164 grammar schools in England (there are no grammar schools in Wales or Scotland, and they are on the way out in Northern Ireland) should not remain pretty much as they are now. They would have the same buildings, the same governors, the same headteachers and staff, the same resources, the same curriculum, uniform and largely the same funding. The only real change would be to the academic profile of the pupils attending the school.
What Cameron, Willetts and others apparently now accept is that the familiar claim that grammar schools offered an "escape from poverty" to bright working-class children otherwise denied real educational opportunity relied heavily on highlighting individual successes, without ever establishing how representative they actually were. In 2006, the proportion of children eligible for free school meals (an imperfect but commonly used indicator of social disadvantage) was much lower in selective than in non-selective schools in every one of the 36 local authorities that retain at least some grammar schools. In the 15 boroughs with around 20% or more of their pupils in grammar schools, the average percentage of children eligible for free school meals in those schools was 1.8% - compared with an English average of 18.1%. It would appear therefore that England’s remaining 164 grammars are schools for the middle classes.
Like Tony Blair, David Cameron talks a good deal about choice. The idea of "choice" in education is all too often ill-defined. Parents can exercise a preference in terms of schools: few can exercise any real choice. A selective system of schooling does not lead to diversity of provision; it simply leads to division. Therefore selection at age 11 is not the creation of choice; rather it is the denial of choice for the many. A selective system (be it based on ability or aptitude) does not help promote a diverse system of schooling; it simply helps perpetuate division in society as a whole.
There now appears to be cross-party consensus that selective schools are not escape routes from poverty, do not offer good value for money and do not help raise standards overall. It is now time to address, once and for all, the archaic and socially exclusive policy of academic selection. I doubt whether David Cameron has the stomach for it, but what about Gordon Brown?