Gemma Moss

A new Hunger Games in education?

Gemma Moss BERA President Monday 12 September 2016

The chance photograph of a briefing paper on grammar schools has bounced the government into bringing a half-baked idea into the full glare of publicity before they’ve really thought it through.

…a cautious Home Secretary has turned into such a cavalier Prime Minister, making evidence-free policy on the hoof

That’s a shame as if they’d taken more time I doubt whether this is really a route they would have chosen to go down. Not when you look at the evidence stacked against the case for what they say they want to achieve. It must be a matter of interest for future historians that a cautious Home Secretary has turned into such a cavalier Prime Minister, making evidence-free policy on the hoof.

The only rational spur to the expansion of grammar schools that I can see are the consequences of the blanket ban forbidding all Local Authorities (LA) to open new schools in their own area. Authorities such as Kent are no more entitled to open new grammar schools than are authorities such as Tower Hamlets to open new comprehensives. Yet pupil rolls are rising and new school places are required. I suspect Tory controlled LAs with selective systems have been lobbying so that they no longer need resort to the device of having to open new “annex” grammars in distant towns to get round this rule.

Local Authority control over schools was taken away precisely to diversify market supply and then offer parents a choice between LA schools and the newer entrants such as academies and free schools. This assumes that structures matter more in the decisions parents have to make than, for instance distance to travel or a sense of community belonging forged in a neighbourhood school. But bringing grammar schools into the mix changes the game. That has become apparent from the struggle the Prime Minster and her Secretary of State for Education have had in voicing what the policy is really for.

There are a number of paradoxes that emerge from the terms in which the argument is cast.

are those parents to be denied their choice in the face of government dogma?

  1. All parents are to be offered the chance to choose a selective school. But by what mechanism? This remains unclear. Through the ballot box and decision-making via local democratically elected representatives, placing them in a position to say no? Or at the say so of central government or a new provider making a market proposal? We do not know. Will a majority of parents be able to prevail if they say no, we don’t want a grammar school, we only want non-selective comprehensives here? Or are those parents to be denied their choice in the face of government dogma: we know best
  1. Who is really in a position to choose in any case? Just as some middle class parents compete to buy houses close to the schools they prefer, so some middle class parents will compete to drill their children in the tests they must pass to enter a grammar school. Think of the money and resources this requires, or the school time it will eat in to if schools feel obliged to play the grammar school entry game. This will not level the playing field for the poorest children. It will entrench rather than reverse social segregation in the education system. In one fell swoop it looks as if the government has simply given up on what every parent wants – a good school near them. A grammar school in every area sanctions the rationing of resource. It creates new means by which parents must expect to compete against each other for a limited number of places. A Hunger Games in education. Who voted for that?
  1. Selection by ability must prevent some children getting in to the school of their choice. More fundamentally, one selective school in an area also weakens the choices other parents can make. Comprehensives can no longer function if a selective entry school takes a significant segment of their population away. Their capacity to maintain a curriculum designed to cater for all which can successfully build aspirations across a whole community goes with it. A selective school significantly reduces the quality of education for those who don’t get in. The government’s own data demonstrate this quite clearly. What happened to the policy aspiration to leave no child behind?
  1. We are told that this policy is to enhance social mobility. But is social mobility the most pressing need right now? Talk of social mobility hides the bigger problem, an economy creating fewer secure jobs for graduates and non-graduates alike, with many more employers recruiting to low skill and low paid positions, offering few rights and no benefits.   The government’s own statistics show that agency working and zero hours contracts abound with no security in income. These provide little chance of saving for a reasonable standard of living in middle life or old age. What is the big idea to meet the needs of this group and all those who fall outside the ladder of opportunity grammar schools offer to a few? Countries that run selective systems include in their mix routes to high quality technical education that many say our country lacks. A bold conservative policy initiative focused on this might indeed have offered choices that many more parents would want: the prospect of their children developing substantial technical expertise in preparation for the higher wages that come with high skill jobs. This is a curious omission, given the investment Kenneth Baker has made in trying to make this model work.

The evidence is clear: selection works in the interests of the few at the expense of the many

The evidence that should steer government away from this policy choice is there. The DfE can easily tell from the pupil performance data they collect that those who do not get in pay a high price for a selective system that excludes them. Out of all the children admitted into grammar schools in Kent, only 3% are eligible for free school meals, a far lower proportion than ought to be the case if the entry test was fair. In fact, selective Kent does significantly less well by those on FSM than non-selective Tower Hamlets. In Tower Hamlets twice as many disadvantaged young people achieved 5+ A* – C (Incl. English and maths) GCSEs in 2015 (61.5%) compared to Kent (30.5%). Indeed, more pupils from whatever background do well in comprehensive Tower Hamlets than in selective Kent. The evidence is clear: selection works in the interests of the few at the expense of the many. Look abroad, and the system level evidence from the PISA studies tells the same story.  Andreas Schleicher and the OECD have consistently argued this case when comparing those countries with selective system with those countries without. The evidence holds across successive PISA rounds. Don’t let dogma from the past wreck the futures of all our children. They deserve better than that.


Gemma Moss is Professor of Education at the University of Bristol.  Her interests include literacy and ethnography with particular reference to gender and attainment; literacy policy and the shifting relationships between policy makers, practitioners and stakeholders that are re-shaping the literacy curriculum;  and the use of research evidence in shaping policy and practice.  She specialises in qualitative approaches to policy evaluation, and innovative mixed methods research designs.  Much of her work is interdisciplinary in character and tackles key themes in knowledge mobilisation and research-informed practice that can influence social change.  

She recently completed a two year ESRC Fellowship on Literacy Attainment Data and Discourse that focused on the history and sociology of education measurement, contrasting how numerical data have been handled in the 1860s, 1950s and in the 2000s.