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Following the Brexit vote, there is an urgent need to heal the many divisions in British society. One of those divisions is the large gap between the educational outcomes of white working-class pupils and others. With ethnic minority children beginning to reach or even exceed national performance averages, the focus is shifting away from the big cities towards the towns, particularly the coastal towns of England. As the Legatum Institute’s UK Prosperity Index shows, these less prosperous areas can lack the social capital and the critical mass of academic teachers and aspirational parents needed to break out of a culture of underperformance.

Successive governments have been alive to this problem and tried to intervene. City Technology Colleges, Education Action Zones, Teach First, City Academies, the National Teaching Service—all have all been tried, yet in many areas there seems to have been little improvement. This is the context for Prime Minister Theresa May’s controversial proposals to introduce a new wave of grammar schools.

There are three main proposals for expanding selection in the Department for Education’s Green Paper Schools That Work for Everyone: allowing existing grammar schools to expand, allowing new grammars to be set up, and allowing all schools the chance to select some or all of their pupils. The last of these proposals is the most radical idea in the Green Paper. The evidence from totally selective areas, such as Kent and Buckinghamshire, cannot be said to be supportive of a wholesale move to reintroduce selection. Wholly selective areas seem to do worse in terms of both social mobility and income inequality, although it is true that, for the small minority of less well-off children who gain access to such schools, they can have a transformative effect.

However, the idea of allowing a small injection of academic selection into low prosperity areas where performance is poor, local capacity is weak, and there is a need for an external stimulus, has more potential. Establishing a new grammar school (or perhaps converting an independent school) could act as a catalyst for change by raising aspiration, bringing in academic teachers, and then spreading quality throughout the local system. It is unlikely that such an initiative would have a significant negative impact in a community that experiences low standards.

However, just introducing a new grammar school would not be enough. The critical test is not that it raises standards for its own pupils, which it obviously must, but that it should be—in the phrase used by Professor Caroline Hoxby when talking about the potential benefits of school choice—a “tide that lifts all boats”. Certain conditions should apply to make sure that everyone benefits from the arrival of a new selective school. The most obvious are limits on pupil numbers, partnering with other schools, increasing the intake for less well-off families, and accountability for performance across the local network of schools.

For example, a new grammar school might be permitted if it provides no more than 5 percent of local secondary places, sponsors a local multi-academy trust that includes low-performing schools and feeder primaries, admits a high percentage of less well-off pupils, and becomes a teaching school. This would ensure that one institution was held accountable for the education performance across the ability spectrum while also taking positive steps to increase local capacity.

The state school system has an obligation to make sure that all pupils, including the most able, receive an education that meets their needs. As Smithers and Robinson said in 2012, “Ensuring that the brightest pupils fulfil their potential goes straight to the heart of social mobility, of basic fairness and economic efficiency.”1 This places a premium, therefore, on designing a system which seeks to ameliorate the weaknesses of selective systems without sacrificing their strengths.

Any expansion of selection will need to be deliberately and explicitly different from those selective systems currently in place in England. The £200 million announced in the 2016 Autumn Statement for expansion of grammar schools should be focused on areas of low achievement, low capacity, and low prosperity. Spreading the benefits of an aspirational culture—using grammar schools if necessary—to those in greatest need is consistent with the view that a core purpose of education is to provide equality of opportunity, so that every child has the chance to become, in former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s words, the author of their own life story.

James O'Shaughnessy

Read the full report here.


  • James O'Shaughnessy on schools funding, BBC Daily Politics, 15 December 2016 [Watch]

About Prosperity UK

Prosperity UK is a broad-ranging and ambitious project that aims to use the unique position in which the UK finds itself to challenge the status quo and generate new ideas to heal Britain’s many divisions. Based on both a thorough understanding of the daily challenges people face and a vision of a truly prosperous nation, we will produce practical solutions to help more people to enjoy prosperity in its broadest sense.