Government plans to expand selective education are facing fierce opposition in the Tory heartland of Surrey where more than 60 secondary school headteachers have written a letter of protest to the prime minister and her education secretary.
All 64 headteachers of Surrey’s state-maintained secondary schools – including academies, free schools, community schools and faith-based schools – signed the letter to Theresa May and Justine Greening expressing their “vehement opposition” to more grammar schools.
The heads’ letter was also sent to each of the county’s 11 Conservative MPs – including the chancellor, Philip Hammond, the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, and the former education secretary Michael Gove – and warns that increasing the number of grammar schools will lead to greater segregation and fragmentation of the education system.
“We are writing to voice our deeply held, vehement opposition to the government’s proposals to create a selective, segregated, two-tier, state-funded system of education,” the letter states. “At its best, the government’s selective school proposals represent further confusion and fragmentation of England’s education policy.
“At its worst this policy is predicated on a nostalgic and unrealistic vision of society, the debate around which deflects attention from the real issues facing schools today.” Those issues, the letter says, include funding cuts, an escalating teacher recruitment crisis, and the pressures of introducing new GCSE qualifications.
The letter is significant because the county has a fully comprehensive school system in which 95% of secondary pupils attend schools that are rated either good or outstanding by schools watchdog Ofsted, compared with 85% in neighbouring Kent, which still has grammars.
The government is currently consulting on its proposals to reverse Tony Blair’s 1998 ban on new grammar schools to enable expansion of selective education in the face of determined opposition from Labour, education experts and a number of its own MPs, including another former education secretary, Nicky Morgan. Gove recently backtracked on his earlier opposition to expansion of selective schools.
May believes expanding selection will create more good school places and open up opportunities for children from poorer backgrounds. Opponents of grammar schools claim they are socially divisive, bad for social mobility and disproportionately educate children from better-off families, leaving others to a second-class education. The government consultation is due to close next month and will be published in the spring.
Ron Searle, headteacher of the Warwick School, a comprehensive in Redhill, Surrey, and one of the signatories to the letter, said: “I’ve worked in selective local authorities and I’ve worked in comprehensives and my view would be very strongly that comprehensives are a great way of bringing people from across all social strata together, and we demonstrate in Surrey that we do a very good job for young people across the board.”
The headteachers’ letter was also sent to Neil Carmichael, the Tory chair of the Commons education committee, which meets on Tuesday to consider the evidence for and against selective education from academics and policy experts, including the school standards minister, Nick Gibb.
“Since the government announced its green paper proposing an extension to selective education, the air has been thick with the sound of claims and counter-claims on the benefits and disadvantages of grammar schools,” Carmichael said.
“This session gives us a valuable opportunity to hear the cases for and against grammar schools, and their effects on academic attainment, social mobility, and on the education system as a whole.”
In a separate move, a group of religious leaders, parliamentarians and education experts have signed an open letter calling on the prime minister to drop proposals to allow all new and existing faith schools in England to religiously select 100% of their places.
Currently new academies and free schools are allowed to religiously select only half of their places, to keep local places for local children regardless of their religion or beliefs.