Conservative backbenchers have come out in support of a campaign to introduce a manifesto pledge to overturn the ban on new grammar schools. The campaign, run by Conservative grassroots group Conservative Voice, aims to increase social mobility through the reintroduction of grammar schools, which are free to attend but, unlike comprehensives, select on ability.
An election pledge to promise more grammar schools would be a shrewd move, as a YouGov poll for the Times taken this week revealed that 54 percent of voters said that they would like to see more grammar schools open. Less than a quarter would oppose the move, whilst 23 percent were undecided.
The poll also found that two thirds of parents would enter their children in the 11+ exam, the test used to determine academic ability which forms the basis for selection by grammar schools. The exam has been widely panned by liberals over the last few decades for causing feelings of inadequacy amongst those who fail the test, but supporters counter that, by creating an opportunity for poor students to access a top-rate education, the benefits in social mobility outweigh the negatives.
Guy Doza of Conservative Voice said “Our followers are strongly of the opinion that new grammar schools will both enhance social mobility and present parents with choice, both of which lie at the heart of the Conservative Party’s values.”
His collegue Archie McLeod said “It is no secret that your socio-economic background can affect the quality of education you receive as a child. Grammar schools are seen by many as a way of levelling the playing field, giving children from lower socio-economic backgrounds the opportunity to receive the otherwise unobtainable standard of public school education.”
Some of the 164 grammars currently in existence are amongst the very best schools in the country, outstripping expensive fee paying schools in the league tables. Consequently, in areas in which very few grammar schools are present, competition for entry can be fierce. The four grammar schools in Kingston and Sutton receive many thousands of applicants for each place, resulting in a test pass rate of just 3 percent. In areas where the grammar system has been retained, such as Kent and Buckinghamshire, that rate rises to around 30 percent.
Supporting the campaign, Graham Brady, chairman of the Conservative Party’s 1922 committee of backbench parliamentary members said “As most local authorities got rid of their grammar schools we have seen social mobility take a nose dive. We have seen far fewer people from state educated backgrounds in law, the upper reach of the civil service, the judiciary and indeed in politics.”
Former shadow Home Secretary David Davis said “We generated large numbers of Nobel Prize winners, we were fantastic leaders in science, and other disciplines, much more so than a country of 60 million has a right to expect. It was a huge success and a tragedy when we got rid of them.”
Dominic Raab, a member of the education select committee is also supporting the campaign. He said “There’s no silver bullet to reviving stagnant social mobility in Britain,” he said. “But grammar schools are a key piece of the policy jig-saw, creating a ladder of opportunity for talented and hard-working youngsters from council estates and rural backwaters.”
Current law bans the opening of new grammar schools, although there have been attempts to get around this by setting up ‘annexe’ schools by those already in operation. Education secretary Nicky Morgan is currently under pressure to give the go-ahead to one such school in Kent.
However, Prime Minister David Cameron has not u-turned on his pledge, made eight years ago, to overturn the law. So far the UK Independence Party is the only party with a manifesto pledge to bring back grammars.