There’s nothing modern about secondary moderns: the case against grammar schools in Thurrock.
By Martin Kerin.
THE official position of Thurrock Council is that it is pro-grammar school. This was confirmed when the Conservatives and UKIP outvoted Labour in support of a motion committing Thurrock Council to be pro-grammar school. Since then, the issue has really picked up a pace since the appointment of Theresa May as the new prime minister: pro-grammar school is not only official Thurrock Council policy – it is official government policy.
To my mind, Thurrock Council isn’t just intentionally pro-grammar; Thurrock Council, is also, unintentionally, pro-secondary modern. Grammar schools and secondary moderns are two sides of the same educational coin: it is the case that for every grammar school that is opened, the neighbouring three become, by default, secondary moderns. If there is one thing that Thurrock does not need, it is the return of secondary modern schools.
The two key arguments which continue to be used in the local and national conversation, are based around social mobility and parental choice.
When it comes to social mobility, you do not increase it by siphoning off the the 25% most academically able at the age of 10 or 11, and hoisting up the educational drawbridge from those who remain. As the chair of the government’s social mobility commission, Alan Milburn, recently confirmed, grammar schools ‘will not provide a social mobility dividend, it will be a social mobility disaster.’
True social mobility comes when all children, regardless of ability at the end of key stage two, get to attend a school which is good or better, staffed with committed teachers and led by inspirational head teachers. Cllr John Kent, the leader of Thurrock Labour, hit the nail on the head when he recently said that the government should be ‘investing in all our schools so that every child in Britain has the best learning experience. Invest in better school buildings, better schools, better teachers, and better support; that’s the way forward.’ It is clear that the focus should be on the 100% – you do not divide the 25% and the 75%. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the outgoing HMCI, poured scorn on the idea of increased social mobility within the grammar school model when he said: ‘the notion that the poor stand to benefit from the return of grammar schools strikes me as quite palpable tosh and nonsense…’
I understand the commitment of all backers of grammar schools in Thurrock for parental choice within the educational system. I, too, believe in choice. As a parent, I want choice for my own children; as a local councillor, I want choice for my residents in Grays Riverside. This choice must be, though, for 100% of parents. With the grammar/secondary modern divide, choice is taken away from the 75% of parents whose children do not ‘make the grade’ at the age of 10 or 11.
I have every understanding for parents who desire a grammar school education for their children, and politicians who desire one for their constituents and residents. One thing the debate needs is less condemnation of the choices that parents make for their children. However, I have never, ever, heard a parent or politician announce that they desire a secondary modern education for the children under their care. This is very, very telling.
Angela Rayner MP, Labour’s shadow education secretary, is leading the national campaign against the expansion of grammar schools under the slogan of ‘Education Not Segregation.’ This is, in essence, what I and the rest of my Party desire for all young people – education, not segregation; this is why the Thurrock Labour group have voted against making Thurrock Council pro-grammar school – education, not segregation. Having said that, it is fantastic that all councillors who serve on Thurrock Council, regardless of party affiliation, view education and social mobility as being of crucial importance. Every councillor wants every child in Thurrock to achieve social mobility and for every parent to have choice – we just disagree on how to get there.
In looking to to the future, we should firstly learn the lessons of the past. The lessons of the past teaches us that the grammar/secondary modern divide wasted more talent than it nurtured. Bitter experience of the past confirms that the divide immobilised more than it mobilised. In looking to the future, Sir Michael Wilshaw has lamented that: ‘If you are taking the most able kids from the comprehensive system, you’re creating by another name secondary moderns…I came into teaching to raise standards for all children, not just the few…grammar schools are for the few. Otherwise, why have them?’ In looking to the future, it is beyond doubt that there is nothing modern about secondary moderns.