Month: June 2017

Grammar Schools – We don’t know how lucky we are!

Quite a few people I know have been disappointed by the election result and seem to think that Labour lost. I don’t agree. Although it will be a few weeks before we see where this lame duck administration is going, one thing we can celebrate now is that their plans for grammar schools are not going to come to fruition. Even the enthusiasts are now only talking about trialling the idea, overlooking the fact that we have had a prolonged trial with negative outcomes and no positive results for the best part of a hundred years!

I think Theresa May will be disappointed. This was her sloppy ideology but it was also cheap policy. It would only have been necessary to fund one or two grammar schools and to allow just a whiff of selection into the system for many schools to feel compelled to follow.

Of course, we like to think that schools would be far too principled but we have to remember that schools have existed in an atmosphere of government-sponsored competition since around 1990 and the notion of an outstanding school is based heavily on its academic performance. Also, there are many senior teachers who remember what it was like – or who know from their own experience – how damaging it is to reputation, to teachers and pupils to have a grammar school down the road creaming off the top 10% of the intake year on year. As if schools don’t have enough to contend with!

So, opening the doors to selection would have compelled many schools across the nation to apply to become grammar schools. The chief executives of multi-academy trusts could easily have been persuaded and good schools, feeling they did not want to be left behind, would join in. There are many schools with a strong moral purpose and determination to be the best that they can and they would have followed unwillingly. The money would have become an irrelevance. Other secondary schools would have tried to compete by introducing a grammar stream in Year 7 and torpedoing the comprehensive ideal along the way.

Then, there would be the testing. Key stage 2 testing since its introduction in the early 1990s has been an unmitigated disaster, unreliable and unfit for purpose. Giving some crackpot organisations the job of recreating the 11+ would lead to the most extraordinary botch because meeting the requirements of right-wing politicians who have no idea what children are capable of at that age while trying to devise a test where tutoring and teaching to the test would not make it easier to succeed would lead to some barmy results. And, if you are trying to divide up sheep and goats at least make sure you can recognise them accurately!

Locally, it never occurs to those who support grammar schools that in the past a grammar school in one area was very different from a grammar school in another. The differences were caused by the social characteristics – or levels of affluence and deprivation in the community – and the amount of ‘creaming off’ which the system allowed. The DFE would have a lot of trouble introducing a fair system because there simply aren’t any reliable statistics which would help them.

Politically, it is also government policy to nurture a school led system as opposed to one managed by local authorities. This policy relies on mutual support and networking and the introduction of a system where introducing selection in one school would change the performance, image and reputation of another would have destroyed it. Even with the rumours that this might happen last year, schools were preparing contingency plans and they didn’t involve collaboration! There were pious statements about everyone agreeing not to be involved but a bit of cash and the lure of some nice exclusive pupils would have been irresistible.

In the end, the people behind grammar schools also want privatisation. Conservative governments have already turned a blind eye to their own favourite schools finding devious ways to select – from churchgoing habits to expensive uniforms. They would love to see charter schools sitting somewhere between the state system, for the oiks, and the independent sector – coupled with some kind of top up fees and the end of not-for-profit schooling in the UK.

We should all be extremely pleased that all of this has been avoided. The grammar school policy, whatever it might cost, was going to be unfair, divisive and ideologically flawed. Good riddance to it!



Reasons to be Cheerful Part 4: A message for the Guardian

Labour scored a momentous victory on Thursday. It was totally unexpected because the campaign was so effective, the leadership was outstanding and a new group of young people were engaged through social media. It matters because it clipped the wings of the right-wing Conservative party making it clear that a hard Brexit, more cuts and austerity, and the UKIP racist agenda are not the flavour of the month. And, it has forced Theresa May into an understanding with the Northern Irish DUP – an appalling misnomer of a political party with extremist and abhorrent views.

Where do we go from here? The first answer is not back to where we were. There are murmurings within the Labour Party that this isn’t quite good enough and they are inspired by the people who wrote off this election because they thought Jeremy Corbyn would be pursued by his past and he was too old and too divisive to lead the party through it. They were proved totally wrong and some of them are still trying to justify themselves in their reflections and comments.

I’ve heard it said that Jeremy Corbyn’s next task is to unite the party but that’s wrong. The next task for the Parliamentary Labour Party is to line up behind Corbyn and help form an even stronger shadow cabinet. It has been a fair criticism that the shadow cabinet lacks depth and I’m hopeful that Corbyn will reach out to some of the people who criticised him in the past and that they will respond warmly. It’s a shame to see a few people writing off this possibility two days after the vote.

They don’t need to lose face either because they are lining up behind a manifesto which very few in the party could not support. I’m also inclined to think that Jeremy Corbyn puts the interests of the party before personality and I’d like to see some of the bigger beasts in the grumpy camp come out clearly for him in the next few days. That will avoid a continuing political game. If members of the PLP continue to act up, the groundswell of support for deselection will split the party and none of us wants that so critical comment which pushes us in that direction is both unhelpful and damaging.

Theresa May’s ‘coalition’ is inherently insecure. It is clear that she would not win a motion of confidence if she negotiated a Brexit deal which pulled the UK out of a proper trading relationship with Europe. It could be scuppered even more quickly by chaos in Northern Ireland where, in the past, the UK has been the honest broker in the shared government negotiations. The DUP deal is not going to help with the upcoming negotiations about power-sharing and could be disastrous. Think how the balance would change if the Sinn Fein members of Parliament suddenly decided to take their seats to keep the DUP under control! And, it must be abundantly clear to many Conservative MPs that Theresa May simply lacks the charm and charisma and the ability to talk to people which are necessary for a successful election campaign. She is unlikely to win another election under any circumstances and, frankly, we are quite likely to have one within a year.

There are plenty of chances for the party to be in a state where it can win a landslide whenever it comes. One of the key positives of this election has been that social media has challenged the hegemony of the loathsome right-wing press. The BBC has falteringly come to realise that the lies perpetrated by some newspapers simply cannot make up an agenda which they follow. And, at last, there are voters to outweigh the ignorant and bigoted people who swallow what they read in the Daily Mail, Express and the rest.

So, there’s plenty to be cheerful about. I think the Guardian and Observer are absolutely key to taking this forward. They offer an alternative view to Murdoch and Dacre and for three years they have got it all wrong, quoting senior and anonymous members of the party who gripe about almost everything. They called the election wrong from start to finish and their editorial stance ought to recognise this. I’m not saying they should be gagged and I know they offer a multiplicity of views as they should but it’s time that the anonymous sneering and gossip stopped. That’s a message for the PLP as well. If you can’t be loyal, what are you doing in the party when its direction of travel is so clear and the opportunities are so evident?

A change of direction doesn’t have to be massive but it is necessary. Everyone has to encourage the PLP to get back into line and Jeremy Corbyn’s team has to make a gesture as well. None of that is impossible, particularly with positive messages of support and let’s hope that in the next couple of weeks we see it working out in the interests of the nation.