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Government urged to create grammar school admissions system 'immune to gaming'

PUBLISHED: 14:54 13 February 2017 | UPDATED: 14:55 13 February 2017

Schools are facing a funding crisis

Schools are facing a funding crisis

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A report by MPs on the education select committee says pupils should not be admitted to new selective schools simply on the basis of passing a test

Ministers have so far failed to show how they could prevent grammar school admission tests from being “gamed” by wealthy parents, MPs have warned.

In a new report, the education select committee said pupils should not be admitted to new selective schools simply on the basis of passing a test, because there is still a risk that access will be restricted to those whose mums and dads who can afford tutors.

The cross-party group of MPs also said the government must demonstrate that creating a new wave of grammars will help close the achievement gap between rich and poor children.

Committee chairman Neil Carmichael called plans to expand selective state school education, first unveiled by prime minister Theresa May last autumn, an “unnecessary distraction”, arguing that the focus should be on giving all young people the skills they need for the workplace.

Children are awarded places to grammar schools based on academic ability, typically through their performance on a test such as the 11 plus in Kent.

But in its report, the committee says it was told by schools minister Nick Gibb that creating a tutor-proof entrance test for grammar schools is a “holy grail”.

If this is the case, the MPs conclude then selection tests “should not be the only basis on which admissions to grammar schools are based”.

Campaign groups such as the Kent Education Network have long called for a re-think as to how pupils are admitted.

“We do not believe a one-off test to define children’s education pathways is fair or desirable,” spokesperson Joanne Bartley said.

“The government has yet to demonstrate how an admissions system could be designed in a manner that would be immune to gaming, or being reduced to the ability to pay”, the report says.

It concludes: “The government must demonstrate how the creation of new grammar schools will help close the attainment gap within the wider school system, not just for individual pupils.”

Mr Carmichael said: “The government has yet to prove the case for opening a new wave of grammar schools.

“The prime minister rightly talks of making Britain a great meritocracy. If the government wants to push ahead with new grammar schools, it must demonstrate how this aids social mobility and improves educational outcomes for all, most especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“The focus on opening new grammar schools is, in my view, an unnecessary distraction from the need to ensure all our young people are equipped with the skills to compete in the modern workplace. A broadly skilled workforce is crucial to the future success of the UK economy.”

Mrs May has argued that grammars can help the life chances of poor pupils and that the current system sees “selection by stealth” based on parents’ wealth and ability to buy houses near the best schools.

But proposals have attracted criticism, including from high-profile figures such as former Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw and headteachers across the county.

Dozens of non-selective heads united at the end of last year to write to Mrs May and education secretary Justine Greening outlining their opposition.

Grammars were also slammed for plans to ask parents for hundreds of pounds a year to help meet a “funding crisis”.

So far Cranbrook School has admitted it is currently consulting parents about the plan, while Gravesend Grammar School has publicly and emphatically stated it will not be following suit.

Last week, it emerged that new selective schools could admit the brightest 10 per cent of children, which has led to concerns that they would be more elite than the current 163 grammars open in England.

It was also suggested that education chiefs are considering a “national selection test” to help prevent “test tourism”, where parents enter their children for exams in different areas where they are considered easier.

Details of the government’s plans came from notes of meetings between ministers, education advisers and the Grammar School Heads’ Association (GSHA).

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said: “The government has lost the argument on grammar schools.

“To focus on schools that ignore 90 per cent of the population is a massive distraction.

“To pour millions of pounds into this system when state school budgets are at breaking point is a terrible use of public funds.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Thanks to the government’s reforms there are nearly 1.8 million more children in schools rated good or outstanding than in 2010, and the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is narrowing.

“But there is more to do to make sure that all children, whatever their background, can go as far as their talents will take them.

“That’s precisely why we have set out plans to make even more good school places available, in more parts of the country, including scrapping the ban on new grammar school places, and harnessing the resources and expertise of universities, independent and faith schools.”

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, added: “When even the Conservative-dominated education selection committee calls Theresa May’s new grammar schools an ‘unnecessary distraction’, it’s time that ministers finally sat up and took notice.

“There is a crisis in teacher recruitment, schools budgets are being cut for the first time in decades and hundreds of thousands of pupils are in super-sized classes.

“The Tories should be keeping their pledge to protect school funding rather than pressing ahead with this policy which will only make things worse for the majority of children.”

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