Tory Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has agreed that Weald of Kent Grammar School, a single-sex academy in Tonbridge, can open a new building in Sevenoaks. This decision marks a shift Michael Gove’s position, and potentially heralds an upsurge in overt selection by so-called academic “ability” on a scale not seen for decades.
Labour legislated in 1998 to prevent construction of new grammar schools. In part this was to deflect the grassroots pressure for the abolition of those grammar schools that remained after an uncompleted move to comprehensivisation. To circumvent Labour’s law, the building in Sevenoaks is being presented as an “annexe” to the existing school ten miles away. Morgan’s decision will probably be legally challenged.
However, Weald of Kent’s status as an academy may work in its favour, since in law it is an independent school. At least ten further projects to expand existing grammar school provision await ministerial approval. 163 grammar schools remain in England, educating about 164,000 pupils. Ten local authorities operate fully-selective education systems, and 26 other authorities have oversight of at least one grammar school. These schools are more likely than other secondary schools to be academies. They are much less likely to contain children with special educational needs, or children who qualify for free school meals. Nationally, about 15% of secondary school pupils can claim such meals. At Weald of Kent Grammar School that figure is 1.3%. Grammar schools don’t exist in isolation, although their advocates like to pretend they do. If one secondary school selects, the intake of any neighbouring secondary school is affected, almost certainly to its detriment in terms of exam attainment, and hence of league table position.
Advocates claim that grammar schools enhance social mobility by enabling some deprived children to find exam success and hence escape their social origins. This claim was never true even in the heyday of the grammar/secondary modern system. Only one in three of the children of unskilled parents who attended grammar schools left with three or more O-levels. It remains as untrue now, given the overwhelmingly middle-class nature of the grammar school intake. A longitudinal study undertaken recently by researchers at the Institute of Education found that: “Contrary to popular opinion, a grammar school education also does not appear to have increased working-class pupils’ chances of getting a degree.” 
But even if the claim held water it would be right to oppose grammar schools, and all models of education based on academic selection. Social mobility does nothing to mitigate the injustices and inequalities which structure everyone’s life-chances under capitalism. It leaves them intact. It is not enhanced social mobility, but the eradication of class society, that is required. Ability Grammar schools are one highly-concentrated manifestation of the exclusivity which informs mainstream thinking about education in England. Such thinking remains shackled to the view that each child is born with a given quantum of “ability”, that this quantum is fixed for life, and that it can be measured accurately enough by testing. A harder view holds that this quantum is genetically given, and inherited. Such determinist thinking about children and young people underpins the widely-held view that they come in broad kinds or types, and that consequently some are in need of an “academic” curriculum, of the kind offered by a grammar school, and others of a “vocational” one. Rather than fall victim to the ideology of “ability”, we should always ask: ability at what, in what circumstances, under what conditions, out of what history? Selective education of any kind reinforces rather than dilutes social stratification. It either sets its face against what is educationally best for all children in a given locality in favour of looking after its own, or purveys separate-but-equal cant. In itself it presents an inherently mis-educative lesson to the society of which it is a part and which it seeks to reproduce. It is mis-educative because, by physically excluding, it deliberately fails to introduce its pupils to the true breadth and diversity of the society beyond the school. Along with this it cannot help but impress on its own selected children, however covertly, that they are better than their peers educated elsewhere, in the de facto secondary moderns which are the inevitable corollary to any grammar school. The overt message of the grammar school and its advocates, that children can be reliably labelled at 11 by innate “ability”-¬¬ as revealed by testing, appears easy to confront. Yet the thinking behind this message pervades the entire mainstream education sector and informs fundamental practices in it.
Weald of Kent’s neighbouring non-selective secondary is proud to declare it offers a “grammar stream”. Setting young people for certain subjects or grouping them at tables by so-called “ability”, or labelling individuals as more or less “able”, is everywhere approved. Yet it is also opposed. Numbers of teachers are made uneasy by setting and grouping, by labelling and differentiation. For them, any learner’s future remains in the making in the present, by the decisions taken all the time by teachers, peers and schools. A socialist education policy must build on this basis. It must move beyond the inveterate fixed-ability thinking which characterises current approaches, and of which grammar schools are merely the most egregious expression.