Paris Gourtsoyannis: Scotland should pay attention to May’s grammar lessons

Theresa May's approach to grammar schools addresses many of the questions that have been left unanswered in Scotland
Theresa May's approach to grammar schools addresses many of the questions that have been left unanswered in Scotland
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Today John Swinney will reveal the Scottish Government’s strategy for reform of school governance. Whatever it contains, the announcement will lack the drama of Theresa May’s speech last week, in which she heralded a return to the educational orthodoxies of the 1960s on a wave of new selective grammar schools.

It isn’t just that Mr Swinney will adopt a typically cautious approach to structural reform of education, compared with the past three Westminster administrations, Labour and Tory. He also hasn’t had his notes photographed on the way in to Bute House.

The Prime Minister would probably have preferred to unveil the biggest change in direction on education policy in 50 years at the Conservative conference next month, rather than being bounced into it by a careless Department of Education official. Perhaps the first lesson at Mrs May’s new schools will be: use a folder.

The announcement seemed to go against everything we’ve come to know about the enigmatic new occupant of Number 10. So far, she has been willing to publicly defy political momentum to assert her authority over events at her own pace.

Britain’s Brexit strategy therefore advances glacially, almost imperceptibly, no faster than Mrs May is willing to allow. The Prime Minister has gambled the UK’s relationship with the world’s newest economic superpower by personally weighing the evidence on the Hinkley Point nuclear deal with China. She has even refused to support a £4 billion renovation of the Palace of Westminster until she has time to digest the evidence, by which point the leaky seat of British democracy may be crumbling into the Thames.

On grammar schools, however, there is little sign of careful deliberation of the evidence, perhaps because the evidence just isn’t there. Mrs May said she wants to “give ordinary, working class people the better deal they deserve”, but results from counties like Kent and Medway that still have grammar schools show the poorest pupils perform less well than the national average precisely because selective schools hoover up all the wealthiest and cleverest pupils. In terms of social mobility, selective schools don’t offer deprived young people much of a leg-up, either: less than 3 per cent of grammar school entrants are eligible for free school meals.

Her announcement was about more than just grammar schools, however. In Scotland, the splendid isolation of devolution announcement has been either derided or ignored. But in being so radical, Mrs May is at least seeking answers to some of the same questions that have faced the Scottish Government for years, without any meaningful response.

One of the Prime Minister’s central arguments in favour of grammar schools is that selection is already happening by stealth, not on the basis of merit, but mortgage payments. Good schools drive up house prices within their catchment areas, so that only parents with wealth and means are able to move nearby and secure a place for their child.

It’s a problem well-documented in Scotland as well as the hot-house London property market. In 2014, Reform Scotland found that property prices at eight of the top ten schools in Scotland were 34 per cent above the local authority average, while estate agents Savills estimates that school catchment areas can add £100,000 to the value of a home, when average house prices are just over £160,000.

Lost in the focus on grammar schools was an announcement which could arguably have a far greater impact. The Prime Minister told universities charging tuition fees of over £6,000 they will have to either sponsor or set up and run schools in the state sector.

Scotland has the worst record in the UK when it comes to getting disadvantaged young people on to full university degree programmes. Its universities also have some of the worst drop-out rates anywhere in Britain.

So far, the Scottish Government’s approach has been to set targets for the proportion of pupils admitted to degree programmes from deprived areas. The mantra of early intervention pervades everything government does these days, but the policy expects the final stage of education to correct the failings of the preceding 18 years for young people from deprived areas.

Universities complain that they can’t do the job of increasing social mobility themselves, and they have a point. There are simply too few young people from poor backgrounds getting the necessary grades. Mrs May’s edict is a direct response to that problem, forcing universities to take some responsibility for the standard of applicants in their area, using some of the windfall from tuition fees to do it.

Universities across Scotland undertake outreach work with schools in an attempt to widen access, but the only scheme with a similar level of intervention is the Advanced Highers hub run by Glasgow Caledonian University. It gives pupils at schools unable to offer top-level qualifications the chance to sit them in a university environment. The scheme had a pass rate of 91 per cent compared with the national average of 81 per cent, but was under threat this summer until funding worth £175,000 from Glasgow City Council was confirmed.

There are obvious pitfalls – schools sponsored or opened by universities will need to be in deprived areas where few pupils go on to higher education in order to have any impact on social mobility. But all of this would be impossible in Scotland.

The Scottish education establishment likes to see itself as distinct from the rest of the UK, but in recent years that has often meant following a few paces behind.

It set itself against TeachFirst, the scheme aimed getting bright young university graduates with training in sought-after specialist subjects straight into front-line teaching. Faced with a chronic shortage of teachers, colleges of education in Scotland are now being forced to consider putting trainees into classrooms earlier.

While England took a long, hard look at its worst-performing schools, Scotland embarked on Curriculum for Excellence, a project with poorly-defined objectives that were never fully clear to teachers or parents. Now the Scottish Government has been forced into a u-turn on standardised testing and curriculum paperwork, while importing aspects of the London Challenge that transformed schools in English inner-cities.

There is no prospect of selective state grammar schools making a comeback in Scotland. But it would be foolish to dismiss all of Mrs May’s reforms out of hand. There may be lessons worth learning there, too.