New high schools can improve the country

Graham Brady MP

4 minute read

Where there are high schools left, most people want to keep them, but where they don’t already exist, you’re not allowed to have them.

The ballot arrangements introduced by Tony Blair’s government may have been intended to prevent academic selection (or, cynics might say, protect it), but only one ballot was triggered – more than 20 years ago – when the Ripon Grammar School survived with two-thirds of parents supporting it. Nowhere else has the threshold been crossed for a petition to gain a vote.

Labour’s legal ban on any new academically selective schools has a particularly perverse effect in areas where the education system remains wholly selective. In areas such as Kent, Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire, an increase in population or the construction of a new town can mean that high schools are not always in the same places as the children. This led to Weald of Kent Girls’ High School years ago jumping through endless hoops to establish an ‘annex’ in Sevenoaks to save local girls a long bus ride to school. Boys are even less fortunate. Where schedules are not possible, children may simply find themselves excluded from opportunities that exist elsewhere in the county. If high school places do not keep pace with population growth, it is also inevitable that schools will become increasingly selective.

At Trafford we have retained the excellent grammar schools and set about improving the secondary schools as well.

Fifteen years ago, when the Conservative Party had a ‘moment of madness’ over education policy, and I resigned from the front seat to defend high schools, it emerged that colleagues from Kent and of Buckinghamshire had already been promised by David Cameron that they would allow new grammars to maintain the standard of selection in their localities.

Over the years I have debated the merits of academic selection countless times but, more often than not, I found myself comparing a modern selective system such as that in my borough of Trafford with historical descriptions of life in the 60s or 70s. When most places saw good high schools and bad modern high schools, they responded by cutting out the part of the system that worked. At Trafford we have retained the excellent grammar schools and set about improving the secondary schools as well.

Selective and partially selective areas dominate the rankings for GCSE and A-level performance, but they are also better than full areas on some more surprising measures too. Research by the Sutton Trust found that the 100 most socially exclusive state schools in England were all comprehensive: selection by house prices, rather than a transparent and meritocratic admissions process. Sutton also found that Trafford was the only local authority area in the North or Midlands to feature in the top 20 for entry into Russell Group universities. How’s that for “leveling” the North? Meanwhile, the Education Policy Institute released its “achievement gap” figures by constituency a few years ago. Chesham and Amersham finished first and Altrincham and Sale West finished second. Far from failing children from less affluent backgrounds, here we see modern selective areas offering the best results for everyone. Similarly, Northern Ireland’s selective system achieves excellent results in public examinations, but also has a very low number of school leavers without any qualifications.

So, yes, I can evangelize for the kind of school that gave me a good start in life. I can also show that high schools can operate under a diverse mix of schools to ensure that everyone can have the type of schooling that best suits their learning style and pace. However, I am not proposing a complete reorganization of English secondary schools. The Schools Bill, currently before Parliament, should be amended to remove a senseless statutory ban on new selective schools. New high schools should be allowed where communities want them.

Sir Graham Brady is the Conservative MP for Altrincham and Sale West.

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