Amid all the Covid upset, one significant but barely noticed change took place this year: Northern Ireland, the last national bastion of academic selection, was forced to abandon its 11-plus “transfer” test.
Thanks to the pandemic, a tradition that has divided generations of children was tossed aside at a stroke because it was simply too difficult to manage reliably in a national lockdown. For the first time in more than half a century all Northern Irish schools have been obliged to find alternative ways to admit secondary pupils.
Sadly, a similar rush of good sense eluded grammar schools and government on the other side of the Irish sea. Faced with a deluge of evidence that months of lockdown, patchy school attendance and a digital divide had widened attainment gaps between better and worse-off pupils, the 163 English grammars put their heads down, ploughed on, and managed to run just about the only examinations that took place last year.
So at a time when educational inequality has made headlines around the world, one group of English families will this month either be celebrating their children’s success at gaining a grammar school place, or coming to terms with the fact that their children will start their secondary school careers marked with the indelible stamp of failure.
Those celebrating will almost certainly be from better-off homes, since the average free school meal intake in the grammar schools is about 3%, compared with 16% nationally, which in turn is largely because of the high cost of private tuition that accompanies this so-called ability test.
It was all so different five years ago, when academic selection exploded as the educational issue of the day after Theresa May promised to reverse the ban on new grammars. Though shocking, was a gift to anyone wanting to rehearse the arguments why the system was and is unfair.
May didn’t last long. Neither did her misguided policy, although a few scraps were thrown to the anti-grammar lobby. An annual £50m selective schools expansion fund was established, money for new places but with a requirement to bolster access for poorer children. And a memorandum of understanding was drawn up between the grammar schools and the government. Officially this was a statement of “shared aims”; unofficially it was a bunch of warm words designed to kick any meaningful reform into the long grass.
Three years on, 22 schools have had money from the expansion pot and some have actually seen their free school meals entrants decline. The fund seems to have fizzled out – the last bidding round was 2019. The Department for Education claims it will be revived post-Covid, though can not say how effective it has been.
Does anyone in government care? It seems not, and this is hardly a topic likely to fire up the prime minister, whose nauseating observation about IQ testing was to suggest that humans were innately of unequal ability, and like cornflakes in a cereal box. “The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top,” he explained in the 2013 Margaret Thatcher lecture, which is certainly an interesting take on the concept of “levelling up”.
The 163 grammar schools may seem like small beer at the time of a national emergency, but for every selective school there is a larger local group of secondary moderns, a school type no one is campaigning to bring back. Like it or not, around 20% of pupils in England feel the impact of the 11-plus tests, which are so diverse and lacking in standardised national data that the creator of one of the tests recently described the process as being like the wild west.
It is slowly dawning, thanks to sober assessments from the new education tsar, Sir Kevan Collins, and others, that putting right the damage of the past year will mean more than a few catchup lessons. Most schools will be held to account for the recovery of the poorest pupils for years to come.
Apart from the grammar schools that is. When it comes to public accountability for the part they will play in restoring the life chances of the most disadvantaged pupils, they have become invisible again, which is probably just where they want to be.