In a budget which barely mentioned education there was one stand-out pledge from the chancellor, a staggering commitment of £240m over the next four years to expand selective education. The prime minister is clearly abandoning the evidence of what works for social mobility by ploughing extra cash into her pet project, the expansion of selective education.
For all the talk about building a country that works for everyone, in this Autumn Statement, the Tories have decided to go for dogma over the detail of what works to tackle the social mobility crisis highlighted in their own Social Mobility Commission’s state of the nation report last week.
Time and again ministers have been warned by experts that selection is not the answer to improving our education system. Grammar schools will not provide the game-changer we need to win the social mobility race. In many selective areas across England they do the reverse, hampering progress for the most disadvantaged children.
Let’s remind ourselves of the evidence. The OECD found that countries with selective education systems do less well than those that are non-selective. In England, the highest attainment gaps are in selective boroughs, yet the highest performing local authorities are comprehensive. In Kent, 27 per cent of free school meal children get five A to C grades, whereas in London it is 45 per cent. The tiny number of free school meal children who attend grammar schools, just 3,000 across the whole country, is not comparable with the tens of thousands of free school meal children elsewhere.
David Willetts described grammar schools as “an arms race of private tuition for rich parents”. Grammar schools foster inequality, which is why the chief inspector of schools, the Fair Education Alliance, the Social Mobility Commission, the Education Policy Institute, the Sutton Trust, the head teachers’ unions, all the heads in Surrey, Ruth Davidson and many Conservative members are all lining up alongside Labour to oppose the expansion of selective schooling.
Rather than waste money on a policy goes against the evidence of what works and stumbles at the first hurdle, Ministers should instead re-allocate this cash to safeguard and expand the true engines of social mobility, maintained nursery schools. Nursery schools have a genuinely transformative effect on the most disadvantaged children with a proven track record of closing the developmental gap that exists pre-school, achieving parity of achievement between the best and least well off children.
There are 400 nursery schools across England. They serve some of the most vulnerable children with 65 per-cent of nursery school places located in the 30 per-cent most deprived communities. nursery schools are the highest performing part of our entire education system with 99 per-cent rated outstanding or good by Ofsted.
There are real concerns about the viability of the future of nursery schools because the government is changing the way early years funding is allocated, removing the ability of local authorities to top up funding for this high quality provision. Many could be forced to close their doors in two years if they are not put on a long-term sustainable footing.
It is in the early years when we can make the biggest impact on stalling social mobility. Ministers are backing the wrong horse to win the social mobility race. They should drop their grammar plans and invest in quality in the early years instead.
Lucy Powell is Labour and Co-operative MP for Manchester Central.