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Able to succeed

Sir Peter Lampl suggests a way forward for Theresa May as she faces Commons opposition to her grammar school plans.

Theresa May’s plans to expand grammar schools have run into a spot of bother in the Commons. Some of her MPs are reluctant to support a policy they see running counter to the academies, free schools and curriculum changes pioneered by Michael Gove.

But the Prime Minister was absolutely right to make social mobility her policy priority – and particularly the needs of the highly able from low and middle income backgrounds.

This year, the Sutton Trust showed once again the extent to which the top of the professions is dominated by those who go to private schools. Our Leading People report found over 70% of the military top brass, leading barristers and judges were independently schooled, along with over half of top civil servants, journalists and leading medics.  Taken overall almost 60% of the top professions are privately educated. To be fair, Theresa May’s cabinet has bucked the trend with the fewest from private schools since Attlee. Although even here almost half are independently educated.

So, there is undoubtedly a real issue. And the strong role of the best independent schools is reflected also in their ability to get so many of their students into Oxford, Cambridge and other leading universities and develop essential life skills such as confidence, articulacy and social skills that are essential to success. Programmes like our summer schools are helping more bright students from comprehensives get into those universities, where forty per cent of students are from independent schools which educate only seven per cent of all pupils.

So, ministers should do three things. First, we need to do much more in comprehensive schools and academies to stretch the highly able. As Conor Ryan noted in his recent blog, one option in the recent green paper is to have highly able hubs within multi-academy trusts. The White Paper in March promised to ‘fund new and innovative approaches to stretch the most able’ and we look forward to seeing more details of what that might involve. We need to trial what works best.

Second, existing grammars have 2.7 per cent of pupils who are entitled to free school meals. These grammars should be reformed first before new grammars are introduced. There are promising experiments in Birmingham and Kent, drawing on our recommendations. But until we see whether they work, it makes no sense to embark on expansion.

But there is a third reform that could transform social mobility at the top: opening up the best independent day schools on the basis of ability rather than ability to pay through what we call Open Access. We have already shown that this can work in a seven year trial at Belvedere, an independent girls’ day school in Liverpool. With the Girls’ Day Schools Trust, we turned an elite school into one where 30 per cent of the students, from disadvantaged homes, paid nothing, and another 40 per cent, from middle income families, paid only partial fees on a sliding scale.  The rest paid full fees.

Crucially we used an outreach officer to recruit across Merseyside, and although entry was selective, we made allowance for the girls’ home and school backgrounds with a contextual admissions approach. An independent evaluation by Buckingham University found academic standards improved and girls of all backgrounds enjoyed being there. Since parents were paying almost half the fees, the cost per pupil was less than at the average state school.

Many independent day schools would be willing to support such a scheme if the Government provided the necessary funding. So rather than new grammar schools, ministers should invite some of the best of these schools to recruit a genuinely fair intake through Open Access.  We have identified a number of outstanding schools who are ready to participate. These schools have the virtue of experience and excellent results – the best get two thirds of their pupils into Russell Group universities and one in five to Oxbridge and they also develop essential life skills. And independent analysis by the Social Market Foundation in 2014 showed how each place would be no more expensive than the average cost of educating a child at a state-funded free school or academy.

Winning a battle over new grammars looks difficult for a government with such a slim Commons majority. But the battle for the needs of those with high ability from modest backgrounds is one that we cannot afford to lose as a nation, particularly when the planned exit from the European Union is accompanied by tougher controls on immigration. We need to act decisively if we are to make to most of all our talents.

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