[ Originally published in the TES on 16th September and online https://t.co/UQfIvtGYED ]
Dear Theresa May,
In 1991 I had a long correspondence with one of your predecessors, John Major. That led to what the Prime Minister’s aide said was “one of Downing Street’s epic exchanges of correspondence”. It went on for two years.
I appreciate that you currently have enormous demands on your time and you will not want to enter into another epic exchange, nor is it desirable that you should. But I would be grateful if you could answer a number of questions to which I believe I am not alone in wanting answers.
Most of the questions arise from your recent education speech and your intention to increase selection in the education system. You do not need me to tell you that your intentions in that regard are a profound and damaging mistake. Plenty of people have already said that, among them the Chair of the Education Select Committee, who says that they are a “dinosaur”, your government’s advisor on social mobility who has described them as a “social mobility disaster”, and the outgoing Education Secretary who has said they are a “distraction”. The very fact that such critics include prominent Conservatives means that it is absurd of you to talk of ideology being introduced in to the discussion. The only ideological element I detect comes from the Right Wing Conservative MPs who you appear to be trying to appease.
David Cameron once said that those calling for grammar schools are “thrashing about in the shallow end of the education debate”. That seems an appropriate description of what you are now doing.
My first question relates directly to your own conscience. I would like to know how you can possibly support an extension of selection, especially in view of what you said on the doorstep of No. 10 about nobody being “left behind”. I do not know how you define “being left behind” but in my view there is no group of children in education who feel more “left behind” than those who are told they have “failed” the 11 Plus.
You and your supporters are trying to sell your proposals on the grounds of increasing “choice” and promoting social mobility. Children have to have “choice”, they say, but you must be well aware that where selection at 11 Plus operates it is not the children that “choose” the grammar school places, but the selection process that decides who will get the grammar school places.
You are doubtless also aware that some £2 billion is spent by wealthier parents to secure coaching for their children to “pass the 11 Plus”. It is no reason to say we should also see that poorer children receive coaching, or that we should extend selection because some of it is already being done by house purchase. Far better to seek to end selection altogether.
Since you regard selection, rather than the enhancement of the performance of all schools and all children, as the key to educational success and greater social mobility, will you state categorically whether you will now seek to introduce it for primary education? Although you chose not to say a word about the importance of primary education in laying the foundation, or acknowledging the outstanding performance of most primary schools, you will know that the primary schools are the most comprehensive sector of our education system. Therefore, on the basis of what you have said about the secondary schools, you ought to say whether you think selection needs to be introduced into the primary sector.
And since Brexit is focusing attention on our need to face up to greater competition with other countries and, therefore, the need to ensure our rising generations are provided with the highest quality education and training, I think you should explain why you have never made parents and voters aware of the fact that the countries which achieve the best results in education are those like Finland and Far East countries which have no selection at all, and why OECD reports show that selection does not increase social mobility. There is also significant research in this country that disproves the idea that grammar schools are the engine of social mobility.
In order to sugar the pill of selection you have spoken of universities and private schools giving help to schools, especially those in disadvantaged areas. As you know, some universities and private schools are already giving some help to such schools and there is nothing to prevent them from doing more, although it is doubtful if the wealthy parents who are paying the high fees for private education will want them to go very far down that road. But what of the disadvantaged children and schools that are not near a university or a private school? What help do they get?
You also propose the opening of more faith schools, at a time when there are growing concerns about increasing tension in our communities arising from religious factors. Do you not think it would be better to bring children of all faiths (and none) together, rather than dividing more of them on religious grounds?
You know you have no “Manifesto commitment” to create new grammar schools, and I would ask you what mandate you think you have to scrap the Academisation plan (which you were a party to as a member of the Cameron Cabinet). I assume you are well aware that your predecessor has said that parents fundamentally don’t want their children to be divided in to “sheep and goats”.
You claim that grammar schools are “hugely popular” among parents. You say nothing of the parents of the 75-80% who are not selected for grammar schools where the 11 Plus still operates. What do you think is “hugely popular” with them?
As for your suggestion that all non-grammar schools should be invited to introduce some form of selection (with, presumably, the abandonment of any formal admissions code), what would happen in an area where all the secondary schools had become selective and some pupils had failed to be selected by any of them? If they failed the new type 11 Plus for the quasi-grammar schools, would they be left to roam the streets?
While you pay lip service to the idea that every child should receive a good education, based on ability not background, you do not make your first priority a determination to ensure that every school should be a good school, and that your government’s actions and policies should be based on dealing with the very real problems many of them are now facing. If that were to be your priority, you would see that the vast majority of schools would continue to meet the needs of our children without the return of selection.
Finally, while you may disregard what I have said and decline to answer any of the questions I have put, I earnestly suggest that you do need to respond to the criticism expressed by the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw. He knows far more about what is happening in our schools and what their real needs are than is known by you, your Education Secretary, your advisers and any DfE official.
Sir Michael has said that the grammar schools are “stuffed with middle class kids” (something you can hardly deny in light of your speech) and has gone on to say that any plans to create more grammar schools would be a dangerous, retrograde step. He said: “I think we will go backwards if we return to a system where we only expect some kids to do well. Every time you create a grammar school you create three secondary moderns, and nobody is queuing up to go to a secondary modern”.
If you fail to heed the words and warnings of Sir Michael and many others, you will have to forgive us if we feel that the honeyed pledges of your No. 10 doorstep declaration are just empty words.
In view of public interest in these issues, you will understand why I am making the contents of this letter known to the press.
Fred Jarvis CBE