We mustn’t return to the 11-plus

Why bringing back the 11 plus would be a return to the bad old days

I couldn’t quite believe it when I read that the Prime Minister wants to bring back the 11 plus and grammar schools. Where on earth had this idea come from, especially since her predecessor David Cameron had rejected it?

We are still none the wiser as to why she wants to do this, but the evidence that it is a very bad idea is overwhelming.

First, why did most of our grammar school disappear in the first place? Because parents wanted them to go. The majority of mums and dads had had enough of their children being told that they were failures at the age of 11 and then being shunted off into secondary modern schools. That’s why the comprehensive school revolution swept most of the country – including in Leeds – led by parents who wanted change for the better. And in the 50 years or so since it began, nowhere has wanted to turn the clock back – until now.

Secondly, it was – and is – profoundly wrong in my view to tell children of that age that they have failed. It damages their self confidence and their self esteem in a way that can profoundly affect their subsequent school career and their lives. Indeed, as a country we are still dealing with the long-term legacy of the old divided system.

Thirdly, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that a return to grammar schools would improve all children’s attainment. In fact the opposite is the case. In areas that still have selection at 11, educational attainment for those pupils who fail to get into the grammar schools is below the national average.

Fourthly, it won’t help children from low income backgrounds to do better either. This is what the Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Michael Wilshaw says:

“The notion that the poor stand to benefit from the return of grammar schools strikes me as quite palpable tosh and nonsense.”

What’s more if you look at the proportion of children on free school meals that grammar schools admit it is much smaller than for other types of schools. In other words, where there are still grammar schools today, access to them is limited to the most well-off. So much for social mobility.

My fundamental objection to this is that education should be about bringing out the talent that is within every young person, and to do that we have to give every child the same opportunity. Some are very good at some subjects but not others. Some are early developers and some come into their own later on. And all of us – whatever our age – do best when we are encouraged.

Going back to a time when we separated 11-year-olds into so-called successes and failures using a single, one-off exam would be to fly in the face of everything we have learned as a society since about how to raise educational standards.

And that is why I intend to fight as hard as I can to stop the 11 plus from returning to South Leeds.