Conservative MP Gareth Johnson argues there should be more grammar schools because they are a great vehicle for social mobility.
The success of grammar schools is highlighted by their popularity. Credit: Dominic Lipinski / PA Wire/Press Association Images
With the selection of the former grammar school pupil, Theresa May, as Prime Minister, comes an opportunity to confront one of the hottest topics in education, that of the merits of grammar school education.
Back in 2011, I hosted a Westminster Hall debate on the issue of grammar schools and I recall some sharp criticism from disapproving Cameron loyalists who were dismayed that I had dared to raise this thorny issue in the House.
Now the importance of social mobility has risen up the political agenda again and this time, debate on the subject is more welcome.
Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, has said she will keep an ‘open mind’ over the issue of new grammar schools. This change in stance is welcome but we need more than ‘open mindedness’ to be serious about social mobility.
I don’t just support grammar schools as a dewy eyed, nostalgia-driven, former grammar school pupil myself, but because they offer more social mobility than any other form of education.
Too often when we look at social comparisons of poor housing, prison populations and poverty, it is unavoidable to draw the conclusion that people from BEM communities are disproportionately affected. Yet it is in grammar schools where BEM pupils are taking full advantage of the positive opportunities available.
Last year, 28 per cent of pupils in Grammar schools where from a non-white background compared to 15 per cent at secondary moderns.
The current restrictions on grammar schools are found in the School Standards and Framework Act which prohibits any new grammar schools. This law also prevents selection by academic ability other than for sixth forms or for banding within schools.
Rather bizarrely therefore selection within a school is fine but between schools it is not. This approach was confirmed in 2006 by the Education and Inspections Act which leaves us with the situation where it is permissible to select pupils according to their abilities in sport, performing arts, foreign languages and visual arts, but not academic ability.
Whilst grammar schools do not provide any guarantee of social mobility, the evidence that they play an important role is clear. The Government’s own social mobility index provides a list of the top social mobility areas in the country. Thirteen out of the top fifty areas have grammar schools. In the bottom twenty areas for social mobility there are no grammar schools at all.
The success of grammar schools is highlighted by their popularity. In my Dartford constituency there are four grammar schools and it is no coincidence that houses in the area take just 16 days to sell compared to three months nationally.
In 2014, 37 per cent of grammar schools across the country were full or oversubscribed compared with a national figure of just 15 per cent for all schools.
Grammar schools are popular and provide social mobility. They are undoubtedly good schools and God knows we need as many good schools as we can get. If we are going to be serious about social mobility then surely it’s time to have more grammar schools.