An Excellent Education for Every Child – Not Just the Few

I want every child in Dulwich and West Norwood to attend a good or outstanding school.  I believe fundamentally in the power of education to enable people to reach their full potential and to help address disadvantage.

I am hugely proud of Labour’s achievement in transforming the quality of education in London since the election of the 1997 Labour government, and of the many fantastic local schools in my constituency.  These schools take a diverse intake of pupils and produce great results, regardless of a child’s background. This is a huge contrast with Kent, for example, which has grammar schools and where performance is very mixed, and where in some schools just 6% of children achieve five GCSEs grade A-C.

I am dismayed at Theresa May’s announcement that the Tories want to expand the prevalence of grammar schools in the UK.  Personal experience, across three generations of my family, supports what all of the evidence on grammar schools says – that while they can deliver a good education for a small proportion of children, this comes at the cost of consigning many more children to ‘failure’ at the age of 11, and that they are neither necessary nor effective at delivering the objective of an excellent education for all.

My dad and his brother were bright working class boys in Liverpool, the sons of a bus driver and a part time doctor’s receptionist, who lived in a privately rented terraced house with no bathroom and an outdoor toilet.  Both of them passed the eleven plus, went to the local grammar school and became the first people in their family to go to university.  Both of them became public servants who rose to the top of their professions, my dad in local government and his brother in the NHS. But my dad and his brother didn’t need a grammar school to realise their potential, they just needed a great education of exactly the kind provided by so many of the schools in my constituency. 

My dad’s grammar school education came at an enormous cost to others.  At the same time, my mum, the middle child of five girls growing up in a Bootle council house, and also a bright child, had a phobia of exams.  She was sick with nerves on the morning of the eleven plus and didn’t take the exam.  She went to the local secondary modern school and left school at 15 with no qualifications and a profound sense of failure – her best friend from church went to the grammar and won a place at Oxford.  My mum’s lack of confidence in her academic ability has never left her, but in her forties and early fifties she was offered a second chance, and she took GCSEs, A-levels and BSc degree finals.  Mum qualified as an Occupational Therapist and worked in the NHS for 15 years before she retired, including ten years at King’s College Hospital.  Had she not been consigned to failure at the age of 11, this could easily have been forty years.

My education at a local comprehensive school that had previously been a grammar school was without a doubt enriched because it took place alongside children from a diverse range of backgrounds, and the town was also able to heal the rifts that had been caused by the resentment that so many families had felt that because of the eleven plus they were not able to access the best education that was on offer for their children.  Amongst my contemporaries were also children who for a variety of reasons would not have passed the eleven plus at the time, but who were able to develop and grow during secondary school to achieve great results at GCSE and A-level.

Skipping forward to the next generation, and my sister-in law and her family have recently moved to Kent which still has grammar schools.  They moved when their son was 9, and felt immediately the lack of genuine meritocracy in an area where many children had been having private tuition for the eleven plus for many months already.  They have recently supported their son through an exam which causes huge stress and anxiety and have told me how parents across their town simply resent this system and the impact that it has on their children – both the stress of the exam itself and the impact on those who fail it, and how it causes rifts between families who are otherwise friends.

There is no evidence at all that grammar schools help social mobility in the way that Theresa May suggests.  Only 3% of grammar school pupils are eligible for free school meals compared with 13% in other schools (much higher in parts of London).  Non-grammar school children in grammar areas like Kent also do significantly worse than similar children in areas like London.  It simply isn’t justifiable to design a system that works only for a small proportion of children, we must have schools that work to deliver excellence for every child.  Across the world, nine out of the best ten education systems are comprehensive.  Our economy and our public services will suffer when we consign large numbers of children to failure at the age of eleven.

The reintroduction of grammar schools is a typically pernicious Tory policy – it promises much, but is inherently capable of delivering only for relatively few.  Experience of education in London over the past 15 years tells us that we do not need grammar schools to deliver a great education for every child, and that creating schools which command the confidence of parents from every part of our community genuinely delivers for all.  Labour’s approach was to invest in teachers, leadership, school buildings and facilities, and to hold schools and Local Education Authorities to account for the quality of the education they deliver. As it proposes to reintroduce grammar schools, the government is also threatening to cut the funding for schools in London by up to 20%.  Everything we hold dear about our fantastic local schools is under threat. We must fight tooth and nail for a fully funded education system which delivers an excellent education for every child – that is the route to social mobility, and to enabling every child in our communities to realise their potential.