It’s not just the stultifying impact on policy making of the prolonged Brexit negotiations which has produced the current sterility in educational policy development. Although government time may be may be absorbed by different approaches to falling off the European economic cliff, education policy is mired in a lack of vision and alternatives. The English political consensus around a system of academisation and increasing school autonomy regulated by a central inspection regime has taken off the agenda any other model of organisation, vision and direction or professional accountability. A system based on individual school autonomy and influenced by neo-liberalism does need some collective values to ensure that it does not descent into egocentric individualism. By consistently raising the importance of education for social mobility and equal opportunities the government both identifies a sense of purpose for a system and reinforces consensus (who would argue with the goal of improved social mobility for the most disadvantaged).
There are, however, growing contradictions between a system which celebrates autonomy and individual choice and claims to be pursuing the goal of social egalitarianism. This becomes apparent in the current policy void where old policy initiatives are recycled such as the old Conservative adherence to grammar schools. Allowing grammar schools to expand retains the focus on school autonomy and parental choice. Grammar schools now however have to show how they match the government’s stated aims of enhancing social mobility. Grammar schools are to be supported not as in an earlier period because they provided for the innately academically gifted but because they can be mechanisms for social mobility. Grammar schools, in the current government rhetoric, can boost the performance of the disadvantaged, especially if they can be persuaded to take quotas of disadvantaged pupils. Grammar schools are no longer a mechanism for inequality but a motor for social mobility and the more opportunities that parents living in poverty have of choosing to send their children to a selective school the better will be their life chances. The contradictions become apparent when we realise that most of the evidence on grammar schools points in the opposite direction.
In the most recent and most comprehensive study of the effects of grammar schools by Durham School of Education the authors point out that grammar schools do no better than non-selective schools as their better performance is due to the fact that they have more advantaged pupils. Further more there is little evidence to suggest that disadvantaged pupils make better progress in grammar schools. What evidence there was that the small number of FSM pupils in grammar school make better progress than they do in other schools disappears when we consider the length of time that pupils have been in receipt of FSM. Attainment at KS4 declines with every year pupils receive FSM and FSM pupils in grammar schools have in general been in receipt of FSM for less time than in other schools. There is no evidence, therefore of a positive grammar school effect on the progress of disadvantaged pupils. Against this the negative effects of segregation experienced by pupils in selective schools, socio-economic and often ethnic segregation, needs to be considered. As the authors conclude the policy of selection has little to recommend it. ‘Put together, the findings mean that grammar schools in England endanger social cohesion for no clear improvement in overall results. The policy is a bad one and, far from increasing selection, the evidence-informed way forwards would be to phase out the existing 163 grammar schools in England.’ (Grammar schools in England: a new analysis of social segregation and academic outcomes Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiq, British Journal of sociology of Education, 2018).
But this and other research is unlikely to have much effect on education policy. The inability to consider any other model for education other than that of academisation, market choice and the right of academy trusts to develop their own policy and practice means that critical research has little value. Where education policy is in a void contradictions between the rhetoric of lofty principles and what the evidence tells us about how the system operates is dealt with simply by ignoring the evidence.