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Dave Hill: Grammar schools will do little to extend social mobility

Dave Hill
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The green paper, Schools that Work for Everyone, outlines reforms to current education policy including plans to allow existing grammar schools to expand, new grammar schools to open and non-selective schools to become selective.

The government’s social mobility agenda is welcome but grammar schools cannot be the focal point of this policy. We need a thorough debate backed up by sound evidence to avoid the creation of ‘show’ projects that enable the highest achievers to thrive at the expense of greater opportunities for every child.

There’s little evidence to suggest that selection on the basis of academic ability reduces the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils. The Education Policy Institute recently found that grammar schools have no significant positive impact on social mobility and that, the attainment gap between children on free school meals and all other children is wider in selective areas than in non-selective areas. We are concerned about how selective education will affect children who aren’t performing at a level by which they will be selected, in a system steered towards increasing social mobility for the most able children. I would like to see a thorough debate about how best to increase opportunities for all children and not just a select few.

Children should be at the heart of any effective social mobility strategy. The needs of vulnerable children and families are best met through a place-based approach to improving social mobility. Councils are key to this; we bring together different parts of the local system, including schools, colleges, universities, training providers and industry representatives, to ensure that the needs of local businesses and people are met. Place-shaping is about boosting the economic sustainability of the local are; enabling children to develop into economically active adults is central to this. If schools don’t meet the needs of local businesses and young people are left with no suitable employment opportunities in their communities they will simply move away. Councils can help local businesses, communities and people can flourish together.

In some ways reintroducing the grammar schools debate is a distraction from the challenges we face in an already complex education system, including funding pressures and a shortage of skilled teachers. These changes could exacerbate the teacher recruitment crisis and result in the best teachers choosing to work in selective schools or leaving the profession altogether. How will this will benefit wider society when we know how much of a difference excellent teaching can make to children’s lives?

We can’t afford to lose sight of what’s important: not school structures but creating an equal chance for every child. I ask that this debate is informed by a rational and open approach.

Dave Hill, president, Association of Directors of Children’s Services and director for people commissioning, Essex CC


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