Why more socially inclusive grammar schools are not the answer in Birmingham (or elsewhere): Richard Hatcher

Theresa May has said that all selective schools, including existing grammars, will have to meet access conditions intended to “improve social mobility”.  Currently the most socially inclusive policy by selective schools nationally is that being implemented by the five grammar schools run by the King Edward VI Foundation in Birmingham. It has created a two-tier admissions policy to admit a higher percentage of pupils from poorer backgrounds: n is their two-tier admissions policy: “up to 20% of places (25% at Aston) are set aside for pupil premium children who achieve ‘a qualifying score’”.

It is not just a question of lower admissions criteria; the King Edward Foundation actively reaches out to local primary schools. According to the Foundation “we’ve also been working with primary schools, children and parents to remove perceived barriers to coming to a selective school.”  It has appointed the retired head of Small Heath school as director of outreach, and “runs masterclasses and familiarisation programmes in local primary schools so children are exposed to the test.”

Here are the current percentages of pupils on free school meals at the KE schools:

  • King Edward VI Aston School 9.6%
  • King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys 5.4%
  • King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Girls 5.8%
  • King Edward VI Five Ways School 5.0%
  • King Edward VI Handsworth School 5.2%

All the KE schools have a significantly higher FSM percentage than the national grammar school average of 3%. The policy was introduced in September 2015 so the current FSM figures only reflect the impact on Year 7: the proportion will increase each year with a new cohort. The September 2015 intake shows that the King Edward schools have achieved their goal overall for Year 7(although not at each individual school).

On the current basis when the policy has worked its way throughout the school the percentage of pupils from socially deprived backgrounds will approach the target levels of 20% (25% at Aston). But that would still be only around half of the 36% Birmingham FSM average.

The King Edward social inclusion policies provide a credible ideological justification for these selective schools to present themselves as vehicles of social justice, more socially inclusive than many comprehensive schools serving better-off areas. They also provide powerful ideological support for May’s new selective schools policy, contributing to her project of redefining the Conservatives as a party of social mobility and opportunity for all.

Does that mean we should dilute our opposition to May’s policy of more socially inclusive grammar schools? No, because it is still a system based on divisions of social class and supposed differences in intelligence. But it does mean that we can’t simply rely just on repeating the familiar figures about grammar schools’ class bias which are often based on areas with a binary system of selective/non-selective schools.

Not only that, we should oppose these new grammar school social inclusion policies because they deepen the penetration of the selective process into the whole school system.  As the King Edwards’ outreach programme shows, they represent a much more systematic and pervasive colonisation of primary schools by the selective principle, based on spurious theories of ‘intelligence’. It uses the prospect of success in being selected to raise the hopes of all the children and orientate the whole school, especially in the later years, around a goal that can only be achieved by a tiny minority.

Our response should not be restricted to opposing selective schools. We also have to consistently argue for our alternative to May’s policy of more socially inclusive selective schools: for the policies and practices that can raise achievement levels for working-class children and young people in Birmingham’s non-selective schools.  

Richard Hatcher





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